In the 1960s, the Sugar Industry Bribed Scientists to Make Sugar Seem Healthier

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Photo: Fabrikstation/Getty Images/Picture Press

If you had to script a cheesy high-stakes thriller film about nutrition research, it might look something like this: Powerful sugar lobby pays prominent scientists to distract the public from its product’s health risks. Said scientists plant studies in top medical journals declaring that fat, not sugar, is the true public enemy number-one. Those studies go on to shape national nutrition recommendations for decades, and the public is none the wiser. Somewhere, someone twirls a mustache. And then, out of nowhere, someone blows the whole thing wide open.

The real revelation wasn’t quite so dramatic, but old documents from the Sugar Research Foundation, published today in JAMA Internal Medicine, shows that the sugar lobby has indeed been up to some pretty shady stuff. From the New York Times:

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 sugar, fat and heart research. 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.

One of the Harvard scientists, the Times notes, was the chair of the university’s nutrition department. Another later joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he had a hand in crafting an early version of the government’s nutritional guidelines — and, per the Times, made sure those guidelines “emphasized saturated fat as a driver of heart disease while largely characterizing sugar as empty calories linked to tooth decay.” As the movie might say: This thing goes all the way to the top.

“They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” Stanton Glantz, a co-author of the JAMA paper and a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told the Times. “[R]eview papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion.” Accordingly, the discussion on heart disease over the past several decades has focused primarily on saturated fat; it’s only in more recent years that added sugar has begun to attract the same level of attention.

It’s not the only time the sugar lobby pulled off some expert-level deception, either. In the 1970s, a group called the Sugar Association launched an ad campaign bent on convincing the American public that sugar was, of all things, a diet aid. “If sugar is fattening,” began one advertisement, “how come so many kids are thin?”