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to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead, newly released historical documents show.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.”
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.