Et Tu, Scientists?

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I have based my entire career and trust in sound nutrition advice with a belief in studies from respected research institutions and published in credible scientific journals. I am appalled and discouraged to my dietary core by the finding that the sugar industry bribed researchers at Harvard University back in the early 1960s to publish a review in the New England Journal of Medicine stating that it was fat, not sugar, that leads to heart disease. The researchers received the equivalent of almost $50,000 in today’s money for selling their souls.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) published this finding in a recent JAMA Internal Medicine study. They uncovered documents dating back 50 years showing the sugar industry manipulated research in the 1960s to play down the harmful effects of sugar and to point fingers at saturated fat as a culprit in heart disease. Five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease following this study may have taken eyes off of sugar and helped shape today’s dietary recommendations to cut fat. “They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” said one of the UCSF authors.

Food companies selling sugary junk have continued this deplorable practice. Last year, Coca Cola provided millions of dollars in funding to researchers who attempted to downplay the link between sugary beverages and obesity. Candy makers fund studies that claim children who eat candy weigh less than those who don’t. With the evidence mounting that repeated intake of sugary foods down-regulates dopamine levels in the brain leading to food addiction, it is not a big leap to link this under-the-table bribery to drug dealing. But, what saddens me the most is that some of the researchers whom I trust to base my nutrition advice so easily trade integrity for money. One of the Harvard researchers, Dr. Mark Hegsted, who took the sugar industry’s money back in the 1960s went on to become the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, where in 1977 he helped draft the forerunner to the federal government’s dietary guidelines. The other researcher, Dr. Fredrick J. Stare, became the chairman of Harvard’s nutrition department. Their influence in shaping dietary advice lasted for years.

If there is good news in these findings it is that academic conflict-of-interest rules  are much more stringent now. Hopefully, that helps discourage researchers with questionable ethics to swing to the dark side. It also is a reminder, as Dr. Walter Willett at Harvard says, “…why research should be supported by public funding rather than depending on industry funding.”

Let’s get this very clear. An overwhelming body of research shows that added sugar in the excessive amounts consumed in the United States is a big contributor to the obesity epidemic.  Although added sugar consumption has decreased a bit in the past few years, we still consume more sugar than any species in the history of the planet. And, we are getting fatter every year. The sugar industry’s underhanded activity has paid off and we have played right into their hands.

Where do we go from here? I am hoping that most researchers put their honor before their pocketbooks and I will continue to base my advice on consensus, not controversy. I also continue to make recommendations based on many, not a few, studies. Add to that list to look to who funded the study! Luckily, researchers are now required to do that.

Elizabeth Somer, M.A.,R.D.

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