If you’re at all health-conscious, you probably know you’re supposed to go easy on butter, cheese, nuts, avocados, eggs, salmon, and other high-fat foods because consuming them contributes to heart disease. You may even choose skim milk, no-fat yogurt, and low-fat ice cream for the same reason. Better for your heart and health, right?
The sugar industry wants you to believe that fat is the root of all things nutritionally evil. Fifty years ago, the Sugar Research Foundation (today known as the Sugar Association) paid three Harvard scientists to publish a review of research on sugar, fat, and heart disease in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. The SRF reviewed drafts of the article before it was published in 1967. Back then, journals were not required to publish conflicts of interest, and so the connection went unnoted. Their “findings” cited fat as the culprit in heart disease and downplayed the role of sugar.
A graduate student at the University of California recently discovered hundreds of internal SRF documents and published a review in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, bringing the story to light.
“A sugar trade association not only paid for but also initiated and influenced research expressly to exonerate sugar as a major risk factor for coronary heart disease (CHD),” health and nutrition advocate Marion Nestle wrote in an editorial accompanying the article. “Although studies at that time indicated a relationship between high-sugar diets and CHD risk, the sugar association preferred scientists and policymakers to focus on the role of dietary fat and cholesterol.”
The documents showed that a top sugar-industry executive discussed in internal memos a plan to direct attention away from sugar and provided the researchers with both the papers that the industry wanted to be reviewed and the results it favored. The Harvard scientists were paid what would today be $50,000 (adjusted for inflation).
“We are well aware of your particular interest,” one of the Harvard scientists wrote to the sugar executives, according to the New York Times, “and will cover this as well as we can.”
“To minimize the association with sugar, the authors seem to have cherry-picked existing data,” wrote Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. “Their review gave far more credence to the studies implicating saturated fat than it did to those implicating sugar.”
The theory that fat, not sugar, causes heart disease influenced decades of food marketing, advice, and consumption.
Though technically, massive food corporations are supposed to disclose research funding, unsurprisingly it still goes unnoticed. In 2016, the Associated Press discovered that a candy trade association funded research meant to debunk the connection between sugar and obesity. The report concluded that children who eat candy weighed less than those who don’t.
The Coca-Cola corporation contributed millions of dollars to research meant to downplay the link between soda and obesity, according to a 2015 report in the New York Times. Also unsurprisingly, the Sugar Association responded to the recent revelations by denying in a statement that there exists “a unique link between sugar consumption and heart disease.”
Who can you believe? It’s hard to know. “Today, it is almost impossible to keep up with the range of food companies sponsoring research–from makers of the most highly processed foods, drinks, and supplements to producers of dairy foods, meats, fruits, and nuts–typically yielding results favorable to the sponsor’s interests,” Nestle wrote in her editorial. “Food company sponsorship, whether or not intentionally manipulative, undermines public trust in nutrition science, contributes to public confusion about what to eat, and compromises Dietary Guidelines in ways that are not in the best interest of public health.”
None of the scientists or sugar executives involved in the 1967 sugar study is alive today. But at least two held positions of great influence. Dr. Mark Hegsted went on to become the head of nutrition at the Department of Agriculture, where he helped draft what would become the federal government’s nutrition guidelines, according to the New York Times. Dr. Frederick J. Stare was Harvard’s chairman of nutrition.
But what about all the fat in butter, cheese, nuts, avocados, eggs, salmon, full-fat yogurt, and whole milk? Turns out, all those foods offer bonus nutrients not found in low-fat foods, may boost your “good” cholesterol that helps combat heart disease, and yield fat content that contributes to your feeling full and satisfied. The best diet advice remains the same: everything in moderation.