Follow the money.  Follow the money.  Follow the money.

If you’ve seen Fat Head, you probably remember that line.  Here’s a perfect example of why you should follow the money, as reported in The New York Times:

The sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead, newly released historical documents show.

Shocking, isn’t it?  Actually, no, it’s not shocking.  Arterycloggingsaturatedfat! hysteria was always about money.

The internal sugar industry documents, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.

The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.

The Harvard scientists were not only whores, they were cheap whores.  The equivalent of $50,000 in today’s dollars to steer the blame for heart disease from sugar to fat?  Man, you got taken.  Think of all those Snackwell’s sold in the ‘80s – fat-free, so they’re guilt-free!  Think of all the sugary products (Cocoa Puffs come to mind) that sported the American Heart Association seal of approval because they were low in fat.  You morons should have demanded at least $10 million each.

The Harvard scientists and the sugar executives with whom they collaborated are no longer alive.

Funny how always seems to be the case, isn’t it?  We learn about these scientific shenanigans after the shenanigators are deceased.  Back in April, I wrote about a “rediscovered” study conducted in the 1960s in which subjects who cut back on animal fats in favor of vegetable oils actually had a higher rate of heart disease.  The investigators apparently buried the study.  One of those investigators was Ancel Keys – long deceased when the data was “rediscovered.”

Anyway …

One of the scientists who was paid by the sugar industry was D. Mark Hegsted, who went on to become the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, where in 1977 he helped draft the forerunner to the federal government’s dietary guidelines. Another scientist was Dr. Fredrick J. Stare, the chairman of Harvard’s nutrition department.

If you’ve read Good Calories, Bad Calories or The Big Fat Surprise, you know how much influence these two shenanigators had on our diets over the decades.

Dr. Hegsted used his research to influence the government’s dietary recommendations, which emphasized saturated fat as a driver of heart disease while largely characterizing sugar as empty calories linked to tooth decay. Today, the saturated fat warnings remain a cornerstone of the government’s dietary guidelines, though in recent years the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization and other health authorities have also begun to warn that too much added sugar may increase cardiovascular disease risk.

Way to go, American Heart Association!  It only took you 40 years to become sort of half-right about diets and health!  If I live to be 120 or so, I might even see you drop the nonsense about arterycloggingsaturatedfat!

The documents show that in 1964, John Hickson, a top sugar industry executive, discussed a plan with others in the industry to shift public opinion “through our research and information and legislative programs.”

At the time, studies had begun pointing to a relationship between high-sugar diets and the country’s high rates of heart disease. At the same time, other scientists, including the prominent Minnesota physiologist Ancel Keys, were investigating a competing theory that it was saturated fat and dietary cholesterol that posed the biggest risk for heart disease.

In 1965, Mr. Hickson enlisted the Harvard researchers to write a review that would debunk the anti-sugar studies. He paid them a total of $6,500, the equivalent of $49,000 today. Mr. Hickson selected the papers for them to review and made it clear he wanted the result to favor sugar.

Harvard’s Dr. Hegsted reassured the sugar executives. “We are well aware of your particular interest,” he wrote, “and will cover this as well as we can.”

I’m pretty sure as well as we can didn’t mean as objectively as we can.

As they worked on their review, the Harvard researchers shared and discussed early drafts with Mr. Hickson, who responded that he was pleased with what they were writing.

“Good job, guys.  If you meet me in the underground parking garage around midnight tomorrow, I’ll give you thick envelope full of other scientific insights I’d like to share, mostly in the form of unmarked bills.”

Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said that academic conflict-of-interest rules had changed significantly since the 1960s, but that the industry papers were a reminder of “why research should be supported by public funding rather than depending on industry funding.”

Awww, isn’t that cute?  Dr. Willet thinks research supported by “public funding” is unbiased.  I mean, it’s not as if “public funding” was yanked away from researchers who disagreed with the Lipid Hypothesis once the U.S. government bought into the idea. And it’s not as if studies supported by “public funding” were buried when the results weren’t what the overlords at the USDA and NIH wanted to hear.

The fact of the matter is that is there is no easy answer for the funding problem.  Industries will of course support researchers who produce results the industries like.  But governments do exactly the same thing.  All we can do is try to become scientifically literate enough to separate the garbage studies from the legitimate studies – some of which are funded by governments, and some of which are funded by industries.

After the review was published, the debate about sugar and heart disease died down, while low-fat diets gained the endorsement of many health authorities.

Welcome to Snackwell’s, Slim-Fast, fat-free frozen yogurt, cereal instead of eggs for breakfast, Weight Watchers Smart Ones frozen dinners, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, chocolate-flavored skim milk in schools, and countless sugar-and-grain products proudly bearing the American Heart Association’s seal of approval – oh, and the diabetes epidemic too.

I hope those jackasses really enjoyed the $49,000.

64 Responses to “A Sweet Deal For Harvard Scientists Helped Spark The Low-Fat Diet Craze”
  1. Ironically or not, but definitely unfortunately, Walter Willett’s entry in the Harvard Faculty page says
    Walter Willett
    Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition
    Chair, Department of Nutrition

  2. Raymond Brisebois says:

    Wow! They sold out for only a few beans and not even of the magic variety … one wonders at the relatively cheap bribe, even translated into today’s currency … residual kickbacks of some kind?

  3. Dianne says:

    OK, now I’m really, really mad. It was bad enough when the whole shemozzle appeared to be due to stupidity, but no — it was cupidity. Well, probably some stupidity as well, but it’s the deliberate, outright cupidity that really gripes me.

  4. Maria J says:

    Tom, introductory sentence typo, If you’ve or you have?

  5. Mike says:

    Arterycloggingsaturatedfat! hysteria was always about money.

    Since Ansel Keys was on the cover of Time in 1961, I’d say it was already about mistaken glory before money joined the party.

    • Walter Bushell says:

      But of course, the path of glory usually include either doing something necessary and good, but much more easily by serving the interests of the big money guys, not to mention the vegans and fellow travelers.

      • Mike says:

        Yes, but do we believe that big sugar was passing funds to Keys in ’61, several years before the events in this article? I suspect that Keys allowed the possibility of making a big scientific splash affect his interpretation of the data.

  6. Tom Welsh says:

    Recently I have come to realise how utterly orthodox economics is undermined by some of its basic axioms – unchanged since the 18th century, by the way, although they were already untrue then. In Jesse Norman’s excellent book, “Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet”, he points out that:

    “… much of modern economics still arises from three basic simplifying assumptions about human nature: that individuals are perfectly rational; that they maximize their utility, benefit or profits; and that they act independently of each other, on the basis of perfect information”.

    All of those assumptions are, in fact, wholly false – as even the least educated simpleton can easily see. But it is the last one that is particularly relevant here. Not only do all “individuals” in our marvellous free-enterprise capitalist economy not have “perfect information”; rich and powerful corporations make it their business to spend money making sure that “individuals” are systematically misinformed – or, in simple terms, lied to.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I’ve read a lot of books on economics and have never heard of an economist who believes people act on the basis of perfect information. As for this incident with the Harvard scum, it’s actually quite in line with Adam Smith, author of “Wealth of Nations.” People who never bothered studying Smith assume he believed free markets work because businesses are run by good people. In fact, he believed quite the opposite: “maximize their utility” is another way of saying “doing what’s in their own interest” which is often interpreted as “they act out of greed.” Smith believed that greed (if you want to call it that) is pervasive, which is why he favored free markets. Let the greedy compete for your dollars, and the greed mostly works in your favor.

      But as soon as you add government regulators to the equation, with their own greed, everything gets distorted. They use government power to stifle competition and create sweetheart deals that benefit them and the businesses, but not you. Hegsted did exactly that. Take the USDA out of the equation, and the incentive to bribe would have been reduced rather a lot.

      • Scooze says:

        The concept “Perfect information” plays a key role in various economics theories.

        • Tom Naughton says:

          I’ve yet to come across a book on economics that claims we have perfect information. We must be reading different books. The ones I’ve read emphasize that we will always live in an imperfect world with imperfect data.

      • Wayne Gage says:

        Going to post this on my page…I’ll give you credit. Hope you don’t mind.

      • Tom H. says:

        Since the USDA didn’t issue their dietary guidelines until 1980, I don’t see how not having them in the equation would have stopped the bribes in 1969.

        • Tom Naughton says:

          I believe you’re missing the point on purpose. The low-fat craze didn’t kick in big-time until the USDA announced those guidelines. Hegsted was largely responsible for the guidelines, and he took the bribes. Take the USDA out of the equation, I doubt the low-fat craze would have gained such sudden momentum. Stare also trashed the Atkins diet before a congressional committee and probably scared a lot of people away from it. So why the @#$% was Congress sticking its nose into the diet business?

          • JillOz says:

            Probably from grain lobby which eventually became the method to spread grain through the food voucher system thus satisfying them and poisoning everyone else.

            Didn’t you post on this or would I have found this elsewhere?

          • Tom H. says:

            I agree with you that the USDA has no place in making dietary guidelines, but I think you have the cause and effect backwards (in the context of this article). Hegstead, bought by Big Sugar in 1969, influenced the USDA in 1977. Having the USDA involved did not cause the bribery ten years earlier.
            Subsequent bribes by BigAg to the USDA, yes. This case, no.

            • Tom Naughton says:

              Let me try this one more time: bribery without government power has limited effect. Big Sugar didn’t bribe him because they knew he’d end up at the USDA, but when he did end up at the USDA, the fact that he’d been bribed had huge ripple effects.

          • Jennifer Snow says:

            Junk science on its own isn’t too dangerous–it has tons of OTHER science to compete with, after all. Junk science that gets adopted as The Official One True View by The Annointed is bad, bad juju.

      • Mike T says:

        Rent seeking is one of big businesses biggest advantages.

    • Perfect example of a “straw man” argument.

      The follow up, stated explicitly in other instances but only implied here, is that therefore government force should be used to dictate the annointed’s intended outcome, which will of course be — wait for it — perfect!


  7. Tammy says:

    And meanwhile we’ve got generations of folks addicted to sugar, myself included. It’s funny, I don’t remember as a kid being addicted to fat but I have spend almost my entire adult life struggling to kick the sugar habit.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I’d say it’s way easier to become addicted to sugar.

      • BobM says:

        According to Dr. Fung, that’s because there are feedback mechanisms in the body for both fat and protein, but the same does not exist for sugar. This makes evolutionary sense, as you can’t find sugar in nature (except honey…but that’s difficult to find and get).

        Here’s my fat story. I had some steaks cut by a butcher. I watched him cut off something I thought was fat (turns out, it was bone), and I asked him if I could have the fat. So, he gave me fat he’d cut off of other pieces of beef. There was a small amount of meat with the fat, so I put it and the steaks on the grill. I tried to eat the fat, but after eating about half of it, I literally could not force myself to eat more. My body refused to eat it. I saved the rest for my next meal.

        Dr. Fung’s story is about an over-eating experiment, where they wanted to make young men overeat. They could not get them to overeat fatty pork chops — the men simply refused to eat more. They had to use carbs to get the men to overeat.

        Contrast that with sugar (or even high carb food, like pasta), and I can never get enough of it. I have to mentally turn off a switch, because my body doesn’t have one.

      • Walter Bushell says:

        Fat is self limiting enough is enough, sugar is not and some people if they eat sugar cannot stop. It’s like alcohol some people can quit or go long times without drink and not crave ti the next day. Of course if you eat sugar with fat, you can keep eating; ice cream is a good example. I used to be able to eat a half gallon in an evening. Stopping that and a soda habit and the weight just flew off. Cola was harder to quit than ice cream.

        I got off my 2 liter cola fix, by first drinking apple juice, then apple juice diluted with water and stevia progressively adding more water until I could drop that too. I do believe that cola is especially addicting. Remember Lustig is getting kids out of Type II by merely cutting off the sugar sweetened drinks.

        Salt is also self limiting — providing it’s not taken with sugar.

        At one high stress time in my life, I smoked one cigarette per day. If I smoked two in a day, the next day I would be craving a cigarette so I did not smoke that day. Ducked that bullet.

    • Scooze says:

      I remember as a kid having a primal love of fat. I was known in my family for trading my steak for everyone else’s fat. PS – I was a very skinny kid. I would also steal bites of the raw hamburger waiting to be cooked. Okay, I was a weird kid. LOL.

      That changed when my family started relying on bread, pasta and processed food. But I’m back to the low-carb lifestyle of my youth. For better or worse, I can’t eat raw meat anymore. I find it gross now.

  8. Galina L. says:

    For better or for worse, most US trends get pick up by whole world, even after it goes out of fashion in US. When I travel to Russia to visit my family, I see more fat people on streets every year, more low-fat foods on store shelves, more advertisement on TV with “healthy” cereals and snacks for children. All that “fat is dangerous” scam damaged most of westernized world.

  9. Jeanne says:

    And you can present people with this info, and they still believe the dietician who says “low fat.”

    • Firebird7478 says:

      My sister, who has a degree in exercise physiology and could open a fitness center any time she wants, is virtually bed ridden with a pain pump due to traveling pains throughout her body. My late mother and I suspect that is due in part to a staph infection she received during wrist surgery some years ago.

      However, I do not rule out the possibility that her symptoms are exacerbated by her fat phobia. The woman, in my estimation, consumes maybe 700 calories a day of fat free foods. Everytime she is hospitalized the nurses tell her she is 20 lbs. underweight. She doesn’t care. The pain is worth the 6 pack abs she has. SMH.

  10. Marshall says:

    I look forward to the class action lawsuits against sugar companies, similar to the ones against tobacco companies.

  11. Bob Niland says:

    There’s a quote in the NYT story on this:
    “By today’s standards, they behaved very badly,”

    They are still behaving badly, it’s just that we have a better chance of learning of it. Just check into the disclosures of the shills for Big Statin:

    re: “why research should be supported by public funding rather than depending on industry funding.”

    As Tom notes, that would be a mistake. Apart from the horrible waste of supporting a bloated bureaucracy, the funding process is then politicized, so even more influenced by dogma (such as the flailing somatic theory in cancer research), and is still subject to industry lobbying and revolving door staffing.

    The solution is disclosure, raw data accessible to independent investigators, and a population with critical thinking skills (no longer taught in government schools, alas).

  12. Phyllis Mueller says:

    I especially enjoyed that Walter Willett continues to hedge his bets:

    Dr. Willett said the researchers had limited data to assess the relative risks of sugar and fat. “Given the data that we have today, we have shown the refined carbohydrates and especially sugar-sweetened beverages are risk factors for cardiovascular disease, but that the type of dietary fat is also very important,” he said.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Yeah, because it’s not as if John Yudkin and others tried to tell them anti-fat warriors they had it all wrong. Of course Willett was one of those warriors, so it’s no surprise he’s making excuses.

      • Bob Niland says:

        So is Willett telling us that nothing has really changed at Harvard since Hegsted? If so, that’s useful information as regards the credibility of their more recent and future publications.

        A more dubious view of this recent saccharide scandal is that Consensus Medicine™ has finally noticed that an increasingly skeptical public is awakening to decades of deadly diet dogma – there is face to be saved, if not actual legal liability to be ducked.

        A scapegoat must be found.
        Big Sugar drew the short straw.
        That they were actually complicit is mere convenience.

        Low carb quarters have been remarking on the role of sugar money for a decade or more. I first heard of this particular paper trail 18 months ago. Why the AMA waited until now to speak could stand some inquiry.

    • Walter Bushell says:

      Well the type of dietary fat IS important. They just recommend exactly the wrong type of fats.
      Using saturated fats is much better than the recommended polyunsaturated.

      Perhaps the researchers that took the bribes were vegans or vegetarians or fellow traverlers., in which case they would think they were doing the right thing.

  13. Mike J. says:

    Great article Tom. Check out this similar article – it shows the greedy and collusion among the food industry.

    I found out about your post/article from my personal trainer. He keeps all of his clients on track with their eating using My Fitness Pal and also doing nutrition/education seminars. I highly recommend everyone to use the app My Fitness Pal to track their food/sugar intake. I use it regularly and that alone has helped me lose a lot of weight. Also thanks to Repke Fitness Personal Training – in Severna Park. Great personal trainers.

    As everyday people we must educate ourselves whether it’s through reading on our own, hiring a dietitian, personal trainer or whomever. We have to seek the truth because as you can see some of those in the food industry only care about money.

    Those scientists obviously had no conscious or soul, “some people will sell their soul to the devil aka Money!

  14. Waldo says:

    “… the diabetes epidemic too.”

    Obesity, Diabesity, ADHD, depression and on and on. It took me into my adulthood to get metabolically broken, sick, pre-diabetic and overweight on the HCLF or SAD diet. Some kids got large and sick right away. I feel bad for all the kids who’ve been bullied, ridiculed and called lazy sloths. This in addition to the whole political arena shows why people are fed up with the establishment (Gov’t, BigAg, Big-whatever lobbyists).

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I don’t think enough people are fed up with government. We still have plenty of voters who think the cure for what ails the country is more government.

  15. Lori Miller says:

    This is the argument I use with my liberal friends, for which they don’t have a comeback: if you get government out of something, there isn’t much control there for industry to highjack.

    Meantime, I’m sure the lipophobes are still scratching their heads over the French paradox, the Swiss paradox, the Rosetto paradox, the Inuit paradox, the Masai paradox, the Women’s Health Initiative, and every other indication that saturated fat doesn’t have anything to do with heart disease.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I’ve tried that one too, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. They’re convinced that by gosh, if we just get the right people in there, government won’t be hijacked. Apparently they haven’t heard of the Clinton Foundation.

  16. Nancy says:

    Cigarettes are addictive because of quick tobacco drying process
    Leaves 20% sugar content.

  17. Walter Bushell says:

    Ah, Snackwells, I remember them well. I only ate them once, two packs and was still hungry.

    “If you don’t eat fat, you won’t get fat”, ala Susan Powter. I read she eventually went broke. Not a good person to flog the slogan “Stop the insanity.”

    And, of course, the “researchers” who favored sugar marked themselves as reliable and probably got other desirable things, like job offers, grant money, ease in getting papers published.

  18. Walter Bushell says:

    Oh, yes! I remember Snackwells, in particular. Bought and ate two packs of them ate them at once and was still hungry. First and last time I ate Snackwells. No fat, and IIRC no protein or very little. But they were “HEALTY” — “If you don’t eat fat you won’t get fat.”

  19. gallier2 says:

    Read Adele Hite’s take on that issue. It goes a little deeper than the simple message of 3 corrupt scientists in the pay of big food.
    and it’s more in the vein of your general vision of things.

  20. Walter Bushell says:

    What they did is not bad behavior as normally so called. What the did is genocide for pay. Exactly because the toxicity of sugar is determined by genes, therefore those who have genes that respond highly badly to sugar will be eliminated from the future.

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