A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine yesterday, reports that the sugar industry, in particular the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), sponsored and groomed major research in the 1950s which ultimately down-played the role of sugar in Coronary Heart Disease (CHD).
The SRF paid researchers to publish (in NEJM, nonetheless) findings that suggested that sugar played no major role in CHD, but rather that fat and cholesterol were to blame for increased rates in the disease. According to the JAMA article, "The industry would subsequently spend $600,000 ($5.3 million in 2016 dollars) to teach 'people who had never had a course in biochemistry… that sugar is what keeps every human being alive and with energy to face our daily problems.'”
The New York Times points out in an article covering yesterday's publication that because nutritional trends tend to follow published research, there was widespread advocacy from health professionals for low-fat diets, many of which tended to also be high in sugar (oh -- and it probably didn't help that one of the lead researchers paid by the SRF later became the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture). Since this advice was so seemingly ubiquitous, some have pointed the finger at the SRF's efforts to shift blame off of sugar as a major cause for today's obesity epidemic.
Unfortunately, this deceptive method of research publication is not solely a thing of the past. The same New York Times article states that "Last year ... Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, provided millions of dollars in funding to researchers who sought to play down the link between sugary drinks and obesity. In June, The Associated Press reported that candy makers were funding studies that claimed that children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who do not."
Investigations into the SRF's research as well as epidemiologic studies (which were free from conflicts of interest) have shown a positive association between high sucrose consumption and CHD outcomes and that sucrose consumption raises serum cholesterol and serum triglyceride levels in healthy people. Further, we know that healthy fats, such as those from fish and plants, can actually protect against cardiovascular disease. The recent findings taken together re-emphasize the importance of modern financial disclosure policies in order to produce research that is free from conflicts of interest and that is non-industry sponsored.
I don't know about you, but these findings definitely make me think about taking nutritional advice with a grain of salt ... or sugar, as the case may be.