Ever wonder why we’ve been misinformed for so long about sugar’s role in weight gain and heart disease? It’s a convoluted story, but part of it involves Harvard professors slanting their research to favor the sugar industry, for a price.
I don’t make this stuff up, folks.
Yesterday, Stat News published an article with this arresting lead:
As nutrition debates raged in the 1960s, prominent Harvard nutritionists published two reviews in a top medical journal downplaying the role of sugar in coronary heart disease. Newly unearthed documents reveal what they didn’t say: A sugar industry trade group initiated and paid for the studies, examined drafts, and laid out a clear objective to protect sugar’s reputation in the public eye.
This is based on documents and memos dating from the 1950’s and 60’s, discovered in Harvard Medical School’s Countway library by Dr. Cristin Kearns, a dentist-turned-researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.
John Hickson: The Sugar Research Foundation’s (SRF) vice president and director of research.
Mark Hegsted: A professor of nutrition at Harvard’s public health school from 1962 to 1978. He helped draft the 1977 Senate committee report, “Dietary Goals for the United States.” He later went on to oversee the human nutrition unit at the Department of Agriculture.
(Quotes taken from documents found in Harvard Medical School’s library)
1954: In a speech by the trade group’s president, the SRF identified an opportunity to increase sugar’s market share by getting Americans to focus on research that blamed fat and cholesterol for causing high blood pressure and heart problems.
1964: John Hickson suggested in an internal memo that the SRF take steps to combat “negative attitudes towards sugar,” in part by funding its own research to contradict the research implicating sugar in heart disease.
Early 1965: Articles linking table sugar to coronary heart disease appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine. (Here’s one.)
July, 1965: With the full knowledge of the chairman of the Harvard public health school’s nutrition department, Hickson made a deal to pay Hegsted and another researcher $6,500 ($48,000 in 2016 dollars) to write an article criticizing the already-published papers that drew a connection between sugar and health hazards. Hickson sent them at least five articles to target.
In one memo, Hickson wrote to Hegsted: “Our particular interest had to do with that part of nutrition in which there are claims that carbohydrates in the form of sucrose make an inordinate contribution to the metabolic condition, hitherto ascribed to aberrations called fat metabolism. I will be disappointed if this aspect is drowned out in a cascade of review and general interpretation.”
In plain English: “We want to rebut the idea that sugar is at fault for fat-related health problems. Make it clear.”
Hegstead replied: “We are well aware of your particular interest in carbohydrate and will cover this as well as we can.”
April, 1966: Hegstead wrote to Hickson to explain a delay. “Every time the Iowa group publishes a paper [with new evidence linking sugar to coronary heart disease] we have to rework a section in the rebuttal.”
There are documents indicating that Hickson reviewed drafts of the paper in process, though it’s not clear whether he or anyone else at SRF made any edits.
Upon review of the final draft before it was submitted for publication, Hickson at SRF wrote, “Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind and we look forward to its appearance in print.”
Dr. Cristin Kearns, who discovered the paper trail, comments: “Hegsted’s reviews examined a wide range of research. He downplayed and dismissed papers that argued that sugar was a cause of coronary artery disease. He found merit only in those that saw fat and cholesterol as a culprit.”
She also notes that, “When the papers were published the following year, authors disclosed other industry funding, but made no mention of the Sugar Research Foundation.”
Sugar Coated Documentary by Michele Hozer – available on Netflix; see the trailer below: