Study de­tails su­gar in­dus­try at­tempt to shape sci­ence

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Candice Choi AP Food In­dus­try Writer

NEW YORK » The su­gar in­dus­try be­gan fund­ing re­search that cast doubt on su­gar’s role in heart dis­ease — in part by point­ing the fin­ger at fat — as early as the 1960s, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of newly un­cov­ered doc­u­ments.

The anal­y­sis pub­lished Monday is based on cor­re­spon­dence be­tween a su­gar trade group and re­searchers at Har­vard Univer­sity, and is the lat­est ex­am­ple show­ing how food and bev­er­age mak­ers at­tempt to shape pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of nu­tri­tion.

In 1964, the group now known as the Su­gar As­so­ci­a­tion in­ter­nally dis­cussed a cam­paign to ad­dress “neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes to­ward su­gar” after stud­ies be­gan emerg­ing link­ing su­gar with heart dis­ease, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments dug up from pub­lic ar­chives. The fol­low­ing year the group ap­proved “Project 226,” which en­tailed pay­ing Har­vard re­searchers to­day’s equiv­a­lent of $48,900 for an ar­ti­cle re­view­ing the sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture, sup­ply­ing ma­te­ri­als they wanted re­viewed, and re­ceiv­ing drafts of the ar­ti­cle.

The re­sult­ing ar­ti­cle pub­lished in 1967 con­cluded there was “no doubt” that re­duc­ing choles­terol and sat­u­rated fat was the only di­etary in­ter­ven­tion needed to pre­vent heart dis­ease. The re­searchers over­stated the con­sis­tency of the lit­er­a­ture on fat and choles­terol, while down­play­ing stud­ies on su­gar, ac­cord­ing to the anal­y­sis.

“Let me as­sure you this is quite what we had in mind and we look for­ward to its ap­pear­ance in print,” wrote an em­ployee of the su­gar in­dus­try group to one of the au­thors.

The su­gar in­dus­try’s fund­ing and role were not dis­closed when the ar­ti­cle was pub­lished by the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Medicine. The jour­nal did not be­gin re­quest­ing au­thor dis­clo­sures un­til 1984.

In an ed­i­to­rial pub­lished Monday that ac­com­pa­nied the su­gar in­dus­try anal­y­sis, New York Univer­sity pro­fes­sor of nu­tri­tion Mar­ion Nestle noted that for decades fol­low­ing the study, sci­en­tists and health of­fi­cials fo­cused on re­duc­ing sat­u­rated fat, not su­gar, to pre­vent heart dis­ease.

While sci­en­tists are still work­ing to un­der­stand links be­tween diet and heart dis­ease, con­cern has shifted in re­cent years to sug­ars, and away from fat, Nestle said.

A com­mit­tee that ad­vised the fed­eral govern­ment on di­etary guide­lines said the avail­able ev­i­dence shows “no ap­pre­cia­ble re­la­tion­ship” be­tween the di­etary choles­terol and heart dis­ease, although it still recommended lim­it­ing sat­u­rated fats.

The Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion cites a study pub­lished in 2014 in say­ing that too much added su­gar can in­crease risk of heart dis­ease, though the au­thors of that study say the bi­o­log­i­cal rea­sons for the link are not com­pletely un­der­stood.

The find­ings pub­lished Monday are part of an on­go­ing project by a former den­tist, Cristin Kearns, to re­veal the su­gar in­dus­try’s decades-long ef­forts to counter sci­ence link­ing su­gar with neg­a­tive health ef­fects, in­clud­ing di­a­betes. The lat­est work, pub­lished in the jour­nal JAMA In­ter­nal Medicine, is based pri­mar­ily on 31 pages of cor­re­spon­dence be­tween the su­gar group and one of the Har­vard re­searchers who au­thored the re­view.

In a state­ment, the Su­gar As­so­ci­a­tion said it “should have ex­er­cised greater trans­parency in all of its re­search ac­tiv­i­ties,” but that fund­ing dis­clo­sures were not the norm when the re­view was pub­lished. The group also ques­tioned Kearns’ “con­tin­ued at­tempts to re­frame his­tor­i­cal oc­cur­rences” to play into the cur­rent pub­lic sen­ti­ment against su­gar.

The Su­gar As­so­ci­a­tion said it was a “disservice” that in­dus­try-funded re­search in gen­eral is con­sid­ered “tainted.”

Com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Coca-Cola Co. and Kel­logg Co. as well as groups for agri­cul­tural prod­ucts like beef and blue­ber­ries reg­u­larly fund stud­ies that be­come a part of sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture, are cited by other re­searchers, and are touted in press re­leases.

Com­pa­nies say they ad­here to sci­en­tific stan­dards, and many re­searchers feel that in­dus­try fund­ing is crit­i­cal to ad­vanc­ing sci­ence given the grow­ing com­pe­ti­tion for govern­ment funds. But crit­ics say such stud­ies are of­ten thinly veiled mar­ket­ing that un­der­mine ef­forts to im­prove pub­lic health.

“Food com­pany spon­sor­ship, whether or not in­ten­tion­ally ma­nip­u­la­tive, un­der­mines pub­lic trust in nu­tri­tion sci­ence,” wrote Nestle, a long­time critic of in­dus­try fund­ing of sci­ence.

The au­thors of the anal­y­sis note they were un­able to in­ter­view key ac­tors quoted in the doc­u­ments be­cause they are no longer alive. They also note there is no di­rect ev­i­dence the su­gar in­dus­try changed the man­u­script, that the doc­u­ments pro­vide a lim­ited

win­dow into the su­gar in­dus­try group’s ac­tiv­i­ties and that the roles of other in­dus­tries and nu­tri­tion lead­ers in shap­ing the dis­cus­sion about heart dis­ease were not stud­ied.

Nev­er­the­less, they say the doc­u­ments un­der­score why pol­icy mak­ers should con­sider giv­ing less weight to in­dus­try-funded stud­ies. Although fund­ing dis­clo­sures are now com­mon prac­tice in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity, the role spon­sors play be­hind the scenes is still not al­ways clear.

In June, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported on a study funded by the candy in­dus­try’s trade group that found chil­dren who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who don’t. The Na­tional Con­fec­tion­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, which touted the find­ings in a press re­lease, pro­vided feed­back to the au­thors on a draft even though a dis­clo­sure said it had no role in the pa­per. The as­so­ci­a­tion said its sug­ges­tions didn’t al­ter the find­ings.

In Novem­ber, the AP also re­ported on emails show­ing Coca-Cola was in­stru­men­tal in cre­at­ing a non­profit that said its mis­sion was to fight obe­sity, even though the group pub­licly said the soda maker had “no in­put” into its ac­tiv­i­ties. A doc­u­ment cir­cu­lated at Coke said the group would counter the “shrill rhetoric” of “pub­lic health ex­trem­ists.”

Coca-Cola sub­se­quently con­ceded that it had not been trans­par­ent, and the group later dis­banded.


A new study re­leased this month de­tails how the su­gar in­dus­try worked to down­play emerg­ing sci­ence link­ing su­gar and heart dis­ease.


A new study re­leased Monday de­tails how the su­gar in­dus­try worked to down­play emerg­ing sci­ence link­ing su­gar and heart dis­ease. It’s the lat­est in­stall­ment of an on­go­ing project by a former den­tist to re­veal the in­dus­try’s decades-long at­tempt to in­flu­ence sci­ence. The Su­gar As­so­ci­a­tion said it ques­tions the au­thor’s at­tempt to play into cur­rent an­ti­sugar sen­ti­ment.

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