Sugar industry funding of research, 1967 style (with many lessons for today)
I wrote a commentary for a study published this morning in JAMA Internal Medicine: “Food industry funding of nutrition research: The relevance of history for current debates.”
The study, by UCSF investigators Cristin Kearns, Laura Schmidt and Stanton Glantz, is based on their archival research. They found documentary evidence of shocking manipulation by the sugar industry of a Harvard review of studies on dietary factors and heart disease published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967.
Kearns et al. discovered that the sugar industry trade association paid investigators at Harvard an impressive amount of money ($48,000 in today’s dollars) to produce research demonstrating that saturated fat—not sugar—raises the risk of heart disease.
In my commentary, I reproduced a figure from the sugar-funded 1967 reviews. This summarizes the epidemiology showing that both sugar and saturated fat intake were then indistinguishably associated with increased mortality in 14 countries.
Nevertheless, the reviews exonerated sugars and blamed saturated fat.
Yes, I know that association does not necessarily mean causation, but I’m guessing that the epidemiology still shows that both sugars and saturated fats are associated with increased heart disease risk.
My interpretation: We would all be healthier eating less of sugary foods and fatty meats.
Here are the relevant documents for your reading pleasure:
- The press release from JAMA Internal Medicine
- The press release from UCSF
- The article by Kearns et al.
- Kearns et al.’s online tables analyzing the studies (look for Supplement in their paper)
- The New England Journal of Medicine articles from 1967: Part 1 and Part 2
- My commentary on Kearns et al.’s paper
- NYU’s blog post about my commentary
- JAMA Internal Medicine’s podcast interview with me and Stan Glantz (find it under Related Multimedia on the right side of the page)
The Sugar Association issued a response to today’s article by Kearns et al.:
We acknowledge that the Sugar Research Foundation should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities…Generally speaking, it is not only unfortunate but a disservice that industry-funded research is branded as tainted…We question this author’s continued attempts to reframe historical occurrences to conveniently align with the currently trending anti-sugar narrative, particularly when the last several decades of research have concluded that sugar does not have a unique role in heart disease. Most concerning is the growing use of headline-baiting articles to trump quality scientific research—we’re disappointed to see a journal of JAMA’s stature being drawn into this trend.
I will post press accounts as they appear (I’m quoted in most of these):
- New York Times
- STAT (a particularly detailed account)
- CSPI’s comment on Kearns et al.
- Live Science
- Bloomberg News
- Healthy Food America comment
- Business Insider
- Associated Press
- United Press International
- Good Food
- Daily Mail
- The Guardian
- US News
- CBS News
- Huffington Post
- Union of Concerned Scientists