Over the years, there have been many disagreements in the health community about which foods are bad for us. New research from the University of California, San Francisco reveals that a major sugar industry trade group paid food scientists at Harvard University in the 1960s to blame dietary fats for heart disease. That move created a legacy whereby sugar got off easy, and made its way into nearly every type of processed and packaged food, while fat was vilified. This slanted misinformation campaign led directly to the rise of “low fat” and “reduced fat” foods, which health experts now say are even worse for you than full fat versions.
Cristin E. Kearns, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF, examined documents from Harvard, the University of Illinois and other libraries to unearth the damning evidence. In the 1960s, heart disease was on the rise in America, and researchers began looking at sugar as a likely contributing factor. Kearns found that, when sugar industry giants got wind of the research trend, they worked swiftly to shut it down. The trade group Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) (now known as the Sugar Association) paid three Harvard scientists $6500 ($48,900 in 2016 dollars) to publish a report on heart disease that blamed fat and exonerated sugar.
The scientists did exactly that. In a 1967 review of prior research on sugar, fat, and heart disease published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Harvard team “minimized the link between sugar and heart health, and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat,” the New York Times reported.
At the time, SRF vice president and director of research John Hickson made the organization’s mission quite clear. Rather than discover the truth and work to protect Americans’ health and well-being, Hickson suggested that SRF “could embark on a major program” to counter “negative attitudes toward sugar.” Paying off scientists to publish biased reviews turned out to be the silver bullet to do just that. Now, with heart disease and obesity rates rocketing sky high, the healthcare system struggles to clean up the mess, while government leaders slowly but surely take measures to reduce the demand for sugary treats. Philadelphia was the first U.S. city to enact a “soda tax” earlier this year, and others are expected to follow in the fight to save Americans from the deadly white stuff.
The study results were published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.