NEW YORK • The sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead, newly released historical documents show.
The internal industry papers, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and published on Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease - including many of today's dietary recommendations - may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry. "They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades," said Professor Stanton Glantz of the department of medicine at UCSF and an author of the new JAMA paper.
The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of US$50,000 (S$68,000) in today's dollars to publish a 1967 review of sugar, fat and heart research. The studies used in the review were hand-picked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), minimised the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.
A few days before submitting the draft of the review for publication, the scientists sent it to SRF's research director John Hickson. "Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind and we look forward to its appearance in print," he wrote.
In 1967, the two-part review appeared in NEJM. It concluded that there was "no doubt" that to prevent coronary heart disease, the only dietary precaution to take was to reduce consumption of cholesterol and saturated fat. In other words: Don't worry about sugar.
The Harvard scientists and the sugar executives with whom they collaborated are no longer alive. One of the scientists paid by the sugar industry was Dr D. Mark Hegsted, who went on to become head of nutrition at the Agriculture Department, where in 1977 he helped draft the forerunner to the federal government's dietary guidelines.
In a statement responding to the JAMA report, the Sugar Association said the 1967 review was published at a time when medical journals did not typically require researchers to disclose funding sources or potential financial conflicts of interest. NEJM did not begin to require financial disclosures until 1984.
The industry "should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities", the Sugar Association statement said. Even so, it said decades of research had concluded that sugar "does not have a unique role in heart disease".