The strategy followed by the sugar bowls was to point to fat and cholesterol as the main dietary culprits of heart disease.
"Today, it is almost impossible to count the number of food companies sponsoring research that often yield results in their interests," says an editorial from the American Medical Association.
The sugar industry worked directly with scientists in the 1950s and 1960s to try to minimize the role of sugar in heart disease and shift the focus to fat and cholesterol. This has been concluded by an investigation published this Monday in the journal of the American Medical Association.
In particular, the study has focused its attention on two scientific articles published in 1967 by various Harvard researchers, which may have influenced the nutritional recommendations that were followed during subsequent decades in the United States. These were mainly focused on the limitation of saturated fat and cholesterol, ignoring the possible damage caused by a high consumption of carbohydrates.
Added fats and sugars: not recommended
As early as the 1960s, two basic lines of research were established, pointing to both added sugars and saturated fats for the high rates of heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases. However, most dietary guidelines have focused only on limiting fat and cholesterol, downplaying the high intake of carbohydrates and added sugars, which may have contributed to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes that is occurring. lives in several western countries.
The new study appears to point to a masterpiece of the sugar industry. The findings come from several documents recently found by a researcher at the University of San Francisco, Dr. Cristin Kearns, showing that the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) funded a study with the clear interest that sugar's role in heart disease was overlooked and fat was singled out.
Kearns examined the files, which included several letters between SRF, Professor Mark Hegsted in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, and former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Roger Adams. All already deceased.
Interestingly, Hegsted himself had been the author of several studies that indicated that the level of glucose in the blood was a better indicator of atherosclerosis than that of cholesterol and that, therefore, they directly related sugar to heart disease.
The SRF maneuver would be to hire Hegsted and the head of his department at Harvard, Professor Fredrick Stare, to serve on the Foundation's scientific advisory committee and conduct a review of all the studies conducted to date on potential causes of heart conditions.
The correspondence leaves no doubt about the SRF's "special interest" in "drowning out" the relationship between carbohydrates and cardiovascular health, nor about Hegsted's knowledge of this interest: "We are well aware of your particular interest in carbohydrates and we will address the matter as well as we can, "said the researcher in one of his letters.
Finally, the study was published in two articles in The New England Journal of Medicine, not without first receiving the approval of the SRF. Their conclusions were clear: you just had to be careful with fats and cholesterol.
The influence of companies on studies
"These documents make it clear that the intention of the study funded by the industry was to reach a foregone conclusion. The researchers knew what the sponsor expected and that is what they did," explains Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health of New York University, Marion Nestle, in an article in the journal of the American Medical Association.
For this researcher, those responsible for this new research have done "a great public service", although she recalls that it was not possible to know if Hegsted and Stare falsified the data or "if they really believed that saturated fat was a greater threat."
Today, like almost all medical journals, the one that published the Hegsted and Stare study requires authors to clearly disclose all potential conflicts of interest. But this has not ended the influence of the food industry on scientific studies. "Today, it is almost impossible to count the number of food companies sponsoring research that often produces results in their best interests," says Nestle.
There are two recent examples that show the validity of this type of practice. Last year, a journalistic investigation by the New York Times showed how Coca Cola had invested millions of dollars to ignore the link between the consumption of sugary drinks and obesity. In another investigation, carried out by the Associated Press, it was revealed how candy makers also tried to influence scientific studies.
For Professor Nestle, the influence of companies "undermines public trust in scientists, contributes to confusion about what to eat and can steer the Dietary Guidelines in a direction that is not in the interest of public health." This researcher concludes that this finding should serve "as a warning not only to politicians, but also to researchers, reviewers, magazine editors and journalists of the need to consider the damage that studies can do to scientific credibility and public health. funded by food companies. "