Sugar industry secretly bought favorable Harvard research
Businesses like science only to the extent that science increases profits. If science has a negative impact on profits, then science must go. Businesses are fortunate in that it seems easy to find scientists who, like those at Harvard, will make experiments produce whatever findings a business wants, provided the remuneration is suitable. Melissa Bailey reports in Stat:
s nutrition debates raged in the 1960s, prominent Harvard nutritionists published two reviews in a top medical journal downplaying the role of sugar in coronary heart disease. Newly unearthed documents reveal what they didn’t say: A sugar industry trade group initiated and paid for the studies, examined drafts, and laid out a clear objective to protect sugar’s reputation in the public eye.
That revelation, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, comes from Dr. Cristin Kearns at the University of California, San Francisco, a dentist-turned-researcher who found the sugar industry’s fingerprints while digging through boxes of letters in the basement of a Harvard library.
Her paper recounts how two famous Harvard nutritionists, Dr. Fredrick Stare and Mark Hegsted, who are now deceased, worked closely with a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, which was trying to influence public understanding of sugar’s role in disease.
The trade group solicited Hegsted, a professor of nutrition at Harvard’s public health school, to write a literature review aimed at countering early research linking sucrose to coronary heart disease. The group paid the equivalent of $48,000 in 2016 dollars to Hegsted and colleague Dr. Robert McGandy, though the researchers never publicly disclosed that funding source, Kearns found.
Hegsted and Stare tore apart studies that implicated sugar and concluded that there was only one dietary modification — changing fat and cholesterol intake — that could prevent coronary heart disease. Their reviews were published in 1967 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which back then did not require researchers to disclose conflicts of interest.
That was an era when researchers were battling over which dietary culprit — sugar or fat — was contributing to the deaths of many Americans, especially men, from coronary heart disease, the buildup of plaque in arteries of the heart. Kearns said the papers, which the trade group later cited in pamphlets provided to policymakers, aided the industry’s plan to increase sugar’s market share by convincing Americans to eat a low-fat diet.
Nearly 50 years later, some nutritionists consider sugar a risk factor for coronary heart disease, though there’s no consensus. Having two major reviews published in an influential journal “helped shift the emphasis of the discussion away from sugar onto fat,” said Stanton Glantz, Kearns’s coauthor and her advisor at UCSF. “By doing that, it delayed the development of a scientific consensus on sugar-heart disease for decades.” . . .
Continue reading. There’s a lot more.
Later in the article:
. . . Letters show the scientist communicating with his funder not just at the outset, but while writing the review, Kearns found. In April 1966, Hegsted wrote to the sugar trade group to report that his review had been delayed because researchers in Iowa had produced new evidence linking sugar to coronary heart disease. “Every time the Iowa group publishes a paper we have to rework a section in rebuttal,” Hegsted wrote. . .
Hickson got a final draft a few days before Hegsted intended to submit it for publication. The funder was happy: “Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind and we look forward to its appearance in print,” Hickson wrote.
When the papers were published the following year, authors disclosed other industry funding, but made no mention of the Sugar Research Foundation.
Hegsted’s reviews examined a wide range of research. He downplayed and dismissed papers that argued that sugar was a cause of coronary artery disease. He found merit only in those that saw fat and cholesterol as a culprit.
Glantz, Kearns’s coauthor, said the major problem with the review is that it was not even-handed: In the cases where sugar was implicated, Hegsted and colleagues dismissed entire classes of epidemiological evidence. But they didn’t hold studies that implicate fat to the same standard, Glantz said. . .
See also the Vox article, “How the sugar industry has distorted health science for more than 50 years.”