Newly uncovered documents detail the sugar industry's use of Harvard researchers to downplay the link between cardio-vascular disease and sugar. The corrosive effects of this deceit are playing out today with epidemics of obesity and coronary heart disease.
An exposé published online this week in JAMA Internal Medicine provides a glaring example of why many Americans are distrustful of those who claim to speak for the public good.
Papers found in Harvard University archives provide smoking-gun evidence that the sugar industry in the 1960s conspired and paid academics at the prestigious school (about $50,000 in today's dollars) to publish skewed research reviews in The New England Journal of Medicine that obfuscated and downplayed the linkage of sugar and coronary heart disease.
"The Sugar Research Foundation had a very sophisticated understanding for the time of the potential health risks associated with sugar use," said Stanton Glantz, PhD, one of several authors of the exposé, and a professor of medicine at the University of California – San Francisco, in an interview accompanying the JAMA story.
"They reached out to some well-known professors at Harvard University and funded them to write a review of the available literature on dietary determinants of heart disease. In the review, the Harvard authors really downplayed the evidence linking sugar and triglycerides and heart disease and emphasized the evidence linking fat intake with heart disease."
The investment by Big Sugar paid sweet dividends, as the misdirection proved extremely influential in the years ahead. "By downplaying and really dismissing sugar's connection to heart disease through triglycerides in this editorial, it helped to derail a discussion of the issue for decades," Glantz said.
There is a certain "No duh!" element to this story. It is no secret that every industry in every sector of the economy attempts to sway the "disinterested" expertise of prestigious scientific and academic institutes to validate their pro-industry perspective, and bottom line.
Even by those jaded standards, this case is egregious, not just for who did it and how they did it, but for the damage it did.
The deception is 50 years old but the effects are still felt as the nation deals with twin and related epidemics of obesity and coronary heart disease. Much of that can be traced to a steady diet of junk foods packed with processed sugars. One can only guess at how many millions of lives were ill-effected by this deception.
The good news is that most research papers published in reputable journals now must disclose funding sources.
Well, sort of. "Even disclosure doesn't do that much," Glantz said. "When reviews and scientific research like this get published, they sort of get swept up into the broader scientific and policy debates where the question of who funded what often gets ignored."
"It isn't so much a matter of falsifying data, it's a matter of what you emphasize and de-emphasis and how you spin it," Glantz said. "Work funded by any interest with a vested interest in the outcome needs to be looked at extremely skeptically, if not discounted entirely."
Repercussions for Providers
For providers, this revelatory JAMA piece may have trickle-down implications in their one-on-one relationships with patients.
This story is already percolating through the mainstream media and will likely be the fodder of conspiracy theorists. Anti-vaccination advocates, for example, whose own agenda is built on fraudulent research, might see this expose as gas-on-the-fire proof that big business is in cahoots with medicine and cannot be trusted.
Others will suggest that the sugar industry pushed for fluoridated water to cover their tracks and mitigate the effects of more sugar in the diet. When special-interest money taints research it also corrodes trust, and those concerns cannot be casually dismissed.
John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders.