Tilting the Scales on the Sugar vs. Fat Debate

After half a century of studying sugar and fat and their effects on heart disease, scientists still can’t carve anything in stone. Sadly, part of the reason comes from within their very own ranks. The role of sugar in heart disease was downplayed for years, and a new study shows how the sugar industry was cozying up to researchers to make dietary fat our biggest enemy.

Last November, an article titled “Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association—Internal Medicine, revealing that sugar industry chiefs paid Harvard scientists to downplay the role of sugar on poor heart health. This dubious alliance began in 1967, exactly 50 years ago.

The aging sugar industry needed to keep up demand for its product, so it paid scientists to hide certain harmful truths about sugar while highlighting the harmful effects of consuming fat. Through this simple revelation, it appears that we may have been getting our information on sugar and fat filtered through the lens of 50 years’ worth of tainted science.

Pretty unsettling, right?

It’s hard not to ignore the fact that the bad information on nutrition and health came from the science world itself. No wonder we never seem to make progress in the debate between sugar and fat. To this day, it’s hard to know how much sugar or fat to eat. Even choosing a nutrition bar gets complicated!

This new study involved many tedious hours spent poring over documents stored in libraries all around the country. It came about through the efforts of Cristin Kearns, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, and two of her colleagues who wanted to know how the sugar industry shaped the debate on fat.

In her abstract, Kearns writes that as far back as the 1950s, scientists knew that consumption of sugar (sucrose) posed a risk for the early warning signs of coronary heart disease. Through an organization called the Sugar Research Foundation, the sugar industry began a long-term campaign to downplay that information and instead to sway the blame over onto fat.

How do you sway public opinion against one type of food, while promoting the other? You fund research projects—specifically, a decades-long campaign of anti-fat research.

Beginning in 1965, the sugar industry began sponsoring research into heart disease, according to Kearns’ article. Their first sponsored project was published in none other than the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most respected medical research journals in country.

The “study” was a research review, and it claimed to find evidence that eating too much fat and cholesterol would lead to CHD. Of course, by then there were volumes of research supporting evidence that sucrose was also a risk factor, but the NEJM review downplayed that evidence.

And so the story continued, well into the 1970s and beyond. Kearns’ team found evidence of a long-running attempt to paint sugar in a healthier light while pointing fingers at fat as the real culprit when it came to heart disease. Meanwhile, America was getting older, eating more sugar, and putting heart health on the line.

Does anybody remember those days back in the 1980s when fat was the diet demon of the day? We all felt the effects. Doctors, magazines, and health experts all proclaimed the evil of dietary fat.

They said very little about what sugar does to the body. Meanwhile, many of us took the advice we’d been given. The fat-free products industry boomed with products like fat-free half-and-half, low-fat cheese, and even fat-free peanut butter.

So what’s the answer? What can we learn from all this?

Kearns weighs in on this in the conclusion to her study. She says that policymakers should give less weight to research that’s funded by the food industry. And that goes for the rest of us, too. Find out who is funding any new study you read, whether it’s about sugar, fat, dairy, or anything else on the menu—and think moderation, no matter what you eat.


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