A newly published study revealed that in 1960 the sugar industry paid three top scientists from Harvard University to downplay the impact of sugar in the development of coronary heart disease1.
While the link between sugar and heart disease is no longer surprising to anyone following the field of nutrition closely, the sheer brazenness of the past actions outlined in this new study can’t be underestimated. The study’s authors analyzed fifty years’ worth of internal sugar industry documents and found that for two decades, the industry, under the auspices of the Sugar Research Foundation, funded studies that downplayed the health impact of sugar and shifted the blame for heart disease to dietary fats.1
This effort helped shaped America’s dietary guidelines and altered our nation’s health.2 In fact, the large increase in sugar consumption over the last 50 years has contributed directly to our current obesity pandemic.3,4,5,6
The Increasing Awareness of Sugar’s Impact
In our modern world, sugar-rich foods are still advertised heavily – but now there is an increasing body of published science available to give the correct information directly to consumers. The results of these scientific studies clearly show that excess carbohydrates and sugar contribute directly to many diseases – not just coronary heart disease.7
For example, one study concluded that high consumption of sugar sweetened beverages put consumers at an increased risk for developing metabolic syndrome, abdominal obesity, and hypertension.8 Other studies show that high sugar diets are linked directly to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.9,10,11
What is surprising is that research showing sugar’s negative impact on heart disease was appearing as early as the 1950s and the sugar industry worked hard to bury it.1
Altering Dietary Recommendations the Wrong Way: Shifting the Blame to Fat
Instead of simply reporting on the evidence as it was – as ethical scientists do – the three researchers from Harvard named in the recent study, fraudulently reported that saturated fat was to blame for the increased risk of developing coronary heart disease. The fact that these scientists were from Harvard University – the crème de la crème of trusted scientific institutions – is also quite upsetting.
Their intentionally misleading report (along with decades of sugar industry-funded research) led to 50 years of inaccurate and unhealthy dietary advice for the average American. In fact, one of the doctors, Dr Mark Hegsted, went on to help shape America’s nutrition guidelines – undoubtedly a huge conflict of interest.12
Hegsted became the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture. This prestigious position allowed him, in 1977, to help draft the forerunner to the federal government’s dietary guidelines. It goes well beyond the typical disqualifier of a mere ‘conflict of interest’ when someone shaping the entire nation’s dietary guidelines has been paid by the sugar industry to intentionally mislead the public.
Newer unbiased research is showing there is likely no link between saturated fat consumption and coronary heart disease or mortality.13,14,15 Information, it appears, that we may have known as early as the 1960s. But, as the industry documents show, big sugar along with researchers like the Harvard team worked hard to turn dietary fat into the bad guy.1 This was a major error of ethics and judgement that greatly altered the trajectory of our nation’s health.
One consequence was the promotion of many low-saturated fat, “healthier” alternatives (like margarine,) that have since been shown to contain damaging elements like trans fats.16 Often making them worse than what they were replacing.
Unfortunately, it has taken many years for the scientific community to undo the damage of this biased research. In the meantime, largely as a byproduct of the decision to blame saturated fat and not sugar, coronary heart disease is now the biggest cause of death in every developed country (including America).17 It is also one of the leading causes of death in developing countries.18 Rates of death from coronary heart disease have skyrocketed since the 1950s, and go up drastically in countries that adopt the Western diet.19
And what is the biggest, cross-sectional point of influence in these cases of disease? Sugar. Quite simply, countries which were previously healthy, experienced a drastic decline in health, soon after they adopted the high-sugar, low-fat Western diet.20
Marketing Sugar’s Addictive Nature
This purchase of influence over America’s dietary habits was also particularly damaging because, as I showed in a recent article, sugar itself is an addictive substance.21,22 For example, one study concluded that the sensation of sweet taste can sometimes surpass the neuronal reward experienced by cocaine ingestion.23
And sugar executives – the ones who pay for this type of favorable research – are fully aware that their product is addictive.24
Internal memos reveal that consumers who habitually consume large amounts of sugar products are known to tobacco executives as ‘heavy users’.25 This term was adopted from internal memos of big tobacco companies – because their marketing and products are actually very similar.26 Both industries aim to hook consumers when they are young and impressionable, and to keep them loyal to their brand – for life.27,28
This has become fairly easy to accomplish, as increasingly large amounts of (addictive) sugar are added to foods which previously contained none.29 Examples of this phenomenon include adding sugar to: bread; spaghetti sauce; yogurt; hot dog buns; breakfast cereals; and many other foods.
Believe it or not, the sugar industry tries to justify this unnecessary sweetening of America’s diet in sugar industry-funded research by claiming that “there’s virtually no evidence” that sugar causes obesity.30 Even more dubiously, one writer claimed that “sugar added to food is an important piece in the food science puzzle” and that “not only can a spoonful of sugar help the medicine go down, but it can help fruits, vegetables and fiber go down as well.”31 Of course a key difference between the 1960s and now, is that this contemporary author was required to disclose that she was a current employee of General Mills when she wrote the aforementioned piece.
Looking at the scientific data, it is sadly clear just how far the sugar industry is willing to go to influence our purchasing behavior.32 For example, one study revealed that the sugar content in products marketed to children was “unacceptably high”.33 And yet, food companies continue to market obesogenic foods to children with almost no oversight or regulation. Sadly, this aggressive and deceptive marketing is just a continuation of what the sugar industry did in the 1960s, by paying off Harvard scientists.
Perhaps most troublingly of all is the fact that the dangerous role of sugar is not simply limited to heart disease.34 Nearly every cause of death, and a myriad of unhealthy diseases, are directly impacted by large amounts of sugar consumption.35
But what is most shocking (and saddening) about this development is that most of the damage could have been avoided. If the scientists had simply refused to change their recommendations, they would have been able to put a stop to all the subsequent health damage – before it even started.
Unfortunately, this is far from the first time we’ve heard about the extremely unethical behavior of the sugar industry.36,37,38,39 In fact, just last year, we found out via the New York Times, that Coca-Cola had paid millions of dollars to fund researchers to downplay the link between sugar-filled drinks and obesity.40 This is a pattern that is unlikely to be curtailed anytime soon. So, always remember to ignore the sweet propaganda and limit your intake of sugar if you want to truly maintain optimal health.
A healthy low-added sugar diet is one of the best preventative – and long lasting – measures you can take. A Paleo Diet is low in sugar, high in nutrients, muscle building protein, and has even been linked to improvements in conditions like diabetes.41 Don’t fall for the sugar industry hype – stick to organic vegetables, healthy fats, and high quality sources of protein. Your brain (and body) will thank you.