In the 1960’s, before conflict of interest disclosure was required, the sugar industry sponsored research promoting dietary fat as an important cause of coronary heart disease, and downplaying the role of sugar, according to a special report in JAMA Internal Medicine.
A 1967 literature review in The New England Journal of Medicine pointed to fat and cholesterol as the dietary culprits of heart disease, glossing over evidence from the 1950s that sugar was also linked to heart disease. According to the new report, the NEJM review was sponsored by the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), which is today the Sugar Association, although its role was not disclosed at the time.
In the report, Laura A. Schmidt of the University of California, San Francisco and colleagues point out that Harvard professor of nutrition Dr. Mark Hegsted co-directed the SRF’s first heart disease research project from 1965 to 1966. Schmidt and colleagues say communications between the SRF, Hegsted and another professor, Roger Adams, uncovered from the University of Illinois archives and the Harvard Medical Library reveal that the foundation set the objective for the literature review, funded it and reviewed drafts of the manuscript.
“I thought I had seen everything but this one floored me,” said Marion Nestle of New York University, who wrote an editorial on the new findings. “It was so blatant. And the ‘bribe’ was so big.”
“Funding research is ethical,” Nestle told Reuters Health by email. “Bribing researchers to produce the evidence you want is not.”
The researchers also reviewed symposium proceedings and historical reports. In 1954, they say, foundation president Henry Haas gave a speech highlighting the potential of reducing American fat intake and recapturing those calories as carbohydrates that would increase the per capita consumption of sugar more than a third.
In 1962, an American Medical Association nutrition report indicated that low-fat high-sugar diets may actually encourage the development of cholesterol. Two years later, according to the new report, SRF vice president John Hickson proposed that the SRF embark on a major program to counter “negative attitudes toward sugar.”
Increasingly, epidemiological reports suggested that blood sugar, rather than blood cholesterol or high blood pressure, was a better predictor of plaque buildup in the arteries. Two days after The New York Herald Tribune ran a full page story on the link to sugar in July 1965, the SRF approved “Project 226,” a literature review on cholesterol metabolism to be led by Hegsted and, among others, Fredrick Stare, another Harvard nutritionist with industry financial ties.
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