Just more than a quarter-century ago, Kurt Cobain, the late frontman for '90s grunge band Nirvana, famously quipped on the seminal “Nevermind” album that “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” It’s a line taken from Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel “Catch-22”—a rude awakening about the paradoxical powers that be. The sentiment holds true now too--especially if you're a fan of sugar--as newly released historical documents show what can only be described as a widespread conspiracy by the sugar industry to downplay the link between sugar consumption and major health issues.
The documents point to efforts by the sugar industry to lay blame on fat—in which the industry succeeded for several decades in making fats we now know to be crucial to our health as the number one dietary enemy. Scientists were paid to shift the blame away from sugar, which largely shaped the food industry over the last half-century—and many would argue for the worse. The absence of fat—often compensated with excess sugar in processed foods—has been connected to numerous health issues including depression, low nutrient absorption, high cholesterol, and even an increased risk of certain cancers. Excessive sugar consumption has been linked to America's obesity epidemic and the vigorous rise of type 2 diabetes in the last several decades.
“[F]ive 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.”
“They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C.S.F. and an author of the new JAMA paper, told the Times.
According to the findings, at least three Harvard scientists were paid to publish data handpicked by a sugar industry-backed trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation. The now-deceased scientists received the equivalent of $50,000 for their research in sugar’s favor.
“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,” reports the Times. In 1977 Hegsted was instrumental in drafting what would later become the U.S. dietary guidelines, which for years encouraged restricting the intake of fatty foods.
The Sugar Association, the current trade group for the sugar industry, defended the research by shifting the blame to the scientific journals of the 1960s that did not require funding disclosures at the time. The group questioned the motive of the new research pointing to the deceptive research, and it also defended its clandestine efforts by reaffirming findings over the last several decades that concluded sugar does not contribute to heart disease--a point that's only half-true, considering sugar contributes greatly to obesity, which can put one at a higher risk of developing heart disease.
“[T]he revelations are important because the debate about the relative harms of sugar and saturated fat continues today,” reports the Times. “For many decades health authorities encouraged Americans to improve their health by reducing their fat intake, which led many people to consume low-fat, high-sugar foods that some experts now blame for fueling the obesity crisis.”
“It was a very smart thing the sugar industry did because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion,” Glantz told the Times.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, called the move by the sugar industry “appalling.”
“You just never see examples that are this blatant. The amount of money they were paid to do this is staggering.”
The Times also noted in 2015 that Coca-Cola and candy manufacturers spent millions of dollars funding research aimed at disproving any link between sugar consumption and obesity.
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Sugar skull n bones image via Shutterstock