The saddest thing about this week’s “shocking” revelations regarding the sugar industry is not what the sugar industry actually did but; what’s really sad is that this is the first time most people are learning about it.
If you happened to miss the headlines of the past week, here’s what happened.
Recently discovered documents show that the sugar industry, in a campaign that started almost a half century ago, paid a lot of money to make sure that the blame for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity was placed squarely at the feet of saturated fat.
That campaign is still going on today. (Read on.)
Go back in time with me for a moment. It was the mid-1960’s and an increasing amount of research was pointing in the direction of sugar as the real culprit in heart disease. The sugar industry was not happy. It fought back by funding research of its own, the sole purpose of which was to cast scientific doubt on what the anti-sugar research was saying. In one case, the National Confectioners Association even managed to rope a nutrition professor at Louisiana State University into doing a study purporting to show that sugar was actually good for weight loss, leading to the CBS news headline, “Does candy keep kids from getting fat?”.
Specifically, according to a paper published this week in JAMA International Medicine the last forty years of horrible dietary advice condemning fat was basically a dog and pony show funded by the sugar industry. It was not, and never was– as my colleagues and I have been saying for decades— based on science.
The JAMA paper shows that in 1965, John Hickson—an executive in the sugar industry—hired two Harvard researchers to write a research review, the purpose of which was to debunk all the anti-sugar research that was coming out at an alarming rate.
Oh, and the research they wanted the Harvard dudes to review was thoughtfully provided by the sugar industry.
Obviously I wasn’t there, but I can tell you exactly how that conversation went.
“Listen boys, we’re feeling like perhaps sugar isn’t getting a totally fair hearing here. We think there are some mighty good things about sugar, I mean; pleasure is an important part of life, right? And it’s so easy to just exercise off those extra calories.
Now we don’t want to influence you fellas in any way—after all, your scientific integrity is of top concern to us—but we’d like you boys to do an objective review of the studies and just give us your honest opinion. Of course we won’t interfere with what you write, we would never do that, we have far too much respect for you boys as scientists!
And if you don’t mind, we’d love to see it as you’re working on it. We might have some valuable info we can contribute. Of course, we won’t change anything—we might make a suggestion or two, but other than that, we’re completely hands off!
You boys understand what I’m saying here, don’t you?”
The researchers understood perfectly. They always do.
The sugar industry paid them about 50K in today’s dollars.
And…ladies and gentlemen… this goes on, let’s see now…. ALL THE TIME!
It’s worth mentioning that numerous studies show that industry funded studies are four to five times more likely to get the desired “positive” results than studies not sponsored by industry. And that’s true whether the industry is Big Pharma, Big Food, or Big Sugar. Or even, it pains me to admit, the natural products industry. The only difference is that we’re selling products that will almost never harm you. They’re selling products that will almost always kill you.
Some of you may be familiar with my book, The Great Cholesterol Myth in which Dr. Stephen Sinatra and I detail exactly how the dietary guidelines came to be written and how they came to demonize fat. Here’s the summary: In 1977, the US Senate Select Committee on Human Nutrition—also known as the McGovern Committee—had come to the end of its tenure, and was about to disband. But they wanted to go out with a legacy document– some guidelines for the country on how to eat healthy.
The cockamamie theories of Ansel Keyes (the genius who came up with the idea that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease) were being pushed on the committee by Keyes and his minions, but there was far from universal acceptance that fat was in fact the bad guy.
John Yudkin—the Dr. Oz of England, and a distinguished professor of nutrition on the other side of the pond—was adamant that sugar was the main cause of heart disease. Other reputable scientists thought the “fat causes heart disease” to be completely batty. (Framingham researcher and biochemist George Mann of Vanderbilt University famously said that the notion that cholesterol and fat caused heart disease was “the biggest scam ever perpetrated on the American public”. Since the McGovern Committee was made up of mostly young Washington lawyers with zero nutrition background, they needed some scientific cover before endorsing any dietary recommendations.
So they turned to Harvard professor Mark Hegsted.
Who, as it turns out, was one of several Harvard professors who were very much in the pay of the sugar industry.
“Oh that Keys fellow is completely right”, said Hegsted, essentially. “It’s fat that causes all the problems”. (You can almost hear Jon Lovitz as Pathological Liar on SNL going, “Yeah! That’s the ticket!. It’s fat! Yeah! That’s the ticket!)
So under the guidance of Hegsted, we get the dietary guidelines, the low-fat diet, the food pyramid, and an epidemic of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
And now, shocker of all shockers, we find out that the sugar industry manipulated public opinion, funded friendly research, attacked opposing views, and used their massive lobbying budget to influence the dietary recommendations that have been making us sick, fat, tired and depressed for about forty years now.
Stanton Glatz, professor of medicine at UCSF, and an author on the JAMA paper, talked to the New York Times about the actions of the sugar industry. “By today’s standards”, he said, “They behaved very badly”.
Oh really? By today’s standards? No, my dear Dr. Glatz, by today’s standards they were positively tame. Industry influence on what we think is pure “science” is not a relic of times gone by, it’s here with us every single day, and it’s getting worse, not better, Have we forgotten already that as recently as 2015—last year, for goodness sake—Coca Cola was funding the seemingly “objective” research organization called The Global Energy Balance Network, the sole purpose of which was to fund research to show two things: people are fat because they don’t exercise, and a calorie is a calorie.
Which, of course, would mean that calories from sugar aren’t any worse than calories from any other source, and as long as you exercise you’ll be just fine.
Which, of course, is utter bullshit.
Does this mean we should never trust “science”? No. But it does mean that we should all be painfully and acutely aware of the fact that almost all science these days is funded by those who have something to gain from the results.
It’s not objective, pure, knowledge-for-the-sake-of-knowledge research that has no other purpose than to discover “the truth”.
Instead, science is all-too-frequently nothing more than cover-your-ass justification for the selling of a product.
I don’t know where I first heard this saying but it’s one of the truest things I’ve ever heard:
When science meets marketing, the first casualty is truth.
These days, science doesn’t just “meet” marketing.
It’s married to it.