Research reveals role of sugar industry in heart disease studies

Harvard researchers were paid for writing a study suggesting sugar did not have a role in the development of heart disease, which the industry approved before publication.
By Stephen Feller   |   Sept. 12, 2016 at 2:27 PM
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SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 12 (UPI) -- Despite research in the 1950s beginning to show sugar's role in increased risk for and development of heart disease, that role was downplayed because of the sugar industry meddling in medical research.

Researchers at the University of California San Francisco discovered publicly-available documents from the 1960s showing the Sugar Research Foundation paid two Harvard scientists to produce a review of scientific literature deeming fat as the biggest cause for heart disease and downplaying any potential role other studies were beginning to find, according to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Tobacco, chemical and pharmaceutical companies are widely suspected of influencing research on their products' health effects, but food companies or their representatives doing the same is somewhat less known.

UCSF researchers found a study called Project 226 was funded by representatives of the sugar industry, who paid researchers at Harvard University $50,000, set the review's objective, contributed "research" to be included with the study and approved drafts as it was produced.

When the study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, however, its industry funding was not disclosed, obscuring significant bias that may have affected the health of millions of Americans since its publication.

"The literature review helped shape not only public opinion on what causes heart problems but also the scientific community's view of how to evaluate dietary risk factors for heart disease," Dr. Cristin Kearns, the UCSF researcher who discovered the industry documents and is the lead author on the study about them, said in a press release.

Kearns and other researchers analyzed 340 documents between sugar industry representatives and two Harvard researchers. The coordination between Harvard and the industry group for about five years resulted in the two-part study, "Dietary Fats, Carbohydrates and Atherosclerotic Disease," published in 1967.

The study led government agencies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to structure dietary guidelines based on reducing fat and carbohydrates in the average diet, but leaving sugar relatively untouched.

Research in recent years, however, has shown sugar added to foods and beverages contributes to the development of heart disease and related conditions.

"There is now a considerable body of evidence linking added sugars to hypertension and cardiovascular disease, which is the No. 1 cause of premature death in the developed world," Schmidt said. "Yet, health policy documents are still inconsistent in citing heart disease risk as a health consequence of added sugars consumption."

In a commentary published with the literature review by UCSF, Dr. Marion Nestle, a researcher in the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University, points out that 50-year-old studies sound like ancient medicine.

Nestle wrote that the recently unearthed documents reveal the importance of disclosing and considering who funds scientific research.

"As the saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune," said Dr. Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at UCSF and director of the university's Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. "There are all kinds of ways that you can subtly manipulate the outcome of a study, which industry is very well practiced at."

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