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Fifty Years Ago, The Sugar Industry Was Funding Research Downplaying Its Effect On Health

Sweets and sugar

It's no surprise that the food industry funds research that supports dubious health claims. VDex/Shutterstock

There is no secret in the fact that the food industry is constantly funding scientific research that then almost invariably concludes something in their favor. It’s a common tactic used by chocolate companies, cereal manufacturers, and everyone in between as an easy way to generate headlines and help push their agenda. But a recent discovery of documents that are nearly 50 years old has shown how this practice has been employed by the sugar industry for decades, producing influential research that diminishes the impact that sugar has on heart disease.

Uncovered by a researcher at the University of San Francisco, the documents show how even back in the 1960s, the sugar industry was trying to fight the growing opinion that the sweet stuff played a role in the development of heart disease. Instead, the scientists being paid by the Sugar Research Foundation (which is now known as the Sugar Association), pushed the idea that fat was the main culprit.


Now, a review of the documents has been published in JAMA Internal Medicine. It shows how a 1967 scientific review looking into the impact of sugar on health was funded by the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), paying Harvard scientists the equivalent of $50,000 each to blame cardiovascular disease on saturated fat and to completely downplay the impact of sugar. The papers show how the SRF were involved with influencing scientific studies from as early as 1962, directing it, funding it, and reviewing the results before they were eventually published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

When inspecting the 1967 paper in detail, the researchers found that the scientists paid by the sugar industry were far more critical of studies linking sugar to heart disease than they were when assessing those linking cholesterol and fat to the condition. In a commentary accompanying the JAMA Internal Medicine article, a nutrition and public health professor at New York University, Marion Nestle, writes that this evidence is a “smoking gun” showcasing the influence these industries have over influential research.

“The documents leave little doubt that the intent of the industry-funded review was to reach a foregone conclusion,” writes Nestle. “The investigators knew what the funder expected, and produced it.” But Nestle doesn’t stop there, saying that these practices are far from ancient history. “Is it really true that food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research in their favor? Yes, it is, and the practice continues.”

So next time you hear some grand health claims about one type of food or a certain nutrient, perhaps you should look a little deeper as to who funded the research in the first place.


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