UCSF researchers find evidence that sugar industry distorted heart disease research
A newly discovered cache of industry documents revealed that the sugar industry began working closely with nutrition scientists in the mid-1960s to single out fat and cholesterol as the dietary causes of coronary heart disease and to downplay evidence that sucrose consumption was also a risk factor.
An analysis of those papers by researchers at UC San Francisco appeared on Sept. 12 in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The internal industry documents, which were found in public archives, showed that a sugar industry trade organization recognized as early as 1954 that if Americans adopted low-fat diets, then per-capita consumption of sucrose would increase by more than one-third. The trade organization represented 30 international members.
Meanwhile, evidence linking sugar consumption to high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels – both thought to be risk factors for coronary heart disease – began to emerge in the scientific literature and popular press.
After a 1965 spike in media attention to the heart disease risks of sucrose, the sugar industry commissioned Project 226, a literature review written by researchers at the Harvard University School of Public Health Nutrition Department, which was published in the highly respected New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 1967. It concluded there was “no doubt” that the only dietary intervention required to prevent coronary heart disease was to reduce dietary cholesterol and substitute polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat in the American diet.
“The literature review helped shape not only public opinion on what causes heart problems but also the scientific community’s view of how to evaluate dietary risk factors for heart disease,” said lead author Cristin Kearns, D.D.S., M.B.A., who discovered the industry documents.
The UCSF researchers analyzed more than 340 documents, totaling 1,582 pages of text, between the sugar industry and two individuals: Roger Adams, then a professor of organic chemistry who served on scientific advisory boards for the sugar industry; and D. Mark Hegsted, one of the Harvard researchers who produced the literature review.
Learn more about what sugar does to your body in this video with Kimber Stanhope, associate research nutritional biologist at UC Davis.