If you’re familiar with my articles, you know that I’m not one for conspiracy theories. Just the facts, ma’am — there’s plenty of science behind natural medicine. So when one of the most prestigious US medical journals publishes an article saying that the sugar industry literally paid to shape the way that we’ve thought about cardiovascular disease for the past half-century, I sit up and take notice.
By way of background, in the mid-twentieth century, there were two main competing hypotheses as to the dietary culprit behind cardiovascular disease: too much refined carbohydrates (sugar) or too much saturated fat. Medical research published in the 1960s put the balance of evidence in the saturated fat column, thus kicking off decades of low-fat dietary advice. This has become such dogma in science and in our culture, that most people failed to notice the 2010 paper that concluded that there was no correlation between saturated fat intake and the development of cardiovascular disease. As science progresses, it is not unusual for theories to be revised in the face of new evidence — and nutritional research is notoriously tricky under the best of circumstances. However, how were scientists so wrong for so many years?
In September 2016, JAMA Internal Medicine published some shocking papers that proved that this was not an accident. In 1967, a sugar industry trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation paid Harvard University researchers the equivalent of almost $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a review article on the role of diet in heart disease. The SRF cherry-picked the articles to be included in the review–and not surprisingly, they only chose studies that exonerated sugar and blamed saturated fat. Documents showed that SRF executive John Hickson was actually involved in reviewing all drafts of the paper, and he wrote, “Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind, and we look forward to its appearance in print.”
There’s no two ways about this. This was outright paid advertising.
The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a paragon of scientific integrity, so almost no one questioned the conclusions. One of the scientists paid by the SRF was Dr. D. Mark Hegsted, who later went on to head the US Department of Agriculture, and draft some of the first federal dietary guidelines in 1977. Not surprisingly, a cornerstone of those guidelines was to minimize saturated fat intake. And thus led to a shift in American eating patterns to the low-fat diet crazes of the 1980s and 90s–but instead of replacing those fat calories with fruits and veggies, we started filling up on sugar and other refined carbohydrates (SnackWells, anyone?). And right along with that is when obesity rates began to skyrocket in this country.
If you think you shouldn’t worry about this, because it was so long ago and we’re more enlightened now, keep in mind that the Coca-Cola Company gave millions of dollars in recent years to researchers who sought to downplay the link between sugary beverages and obesity.
For your own health, stick with a low-glycemic index, Mediterranean diet — low in refined carbohydrates, but not skimping on healthy fats from nuts and olive oil — which has been shown to reduce risk of cardiovascular deaths by 30% compared to the low-fat approach. Keep up with nutrition research–and always question where the funding is coming from.