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Here's How The Food Industry Made Us Think Sugar Isn't That Bad For Us

Their strategy was to dupe us into thinking it was all saturated fat — not sugary sweets — to blame for heart disease.

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A new study shows that the sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease — blaming saturated fat, instead.

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Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco just published an article in JAMA Internal Medicine that documents how the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF, now called the Sugar Association), starting in the 1950's, set out to warp our understanding of the effects of sugar on health in order to get more Americans to eat sugar.

The research is the result of a review of hundreds of internal documents and correspondence from the SRF.

Big Sugar did this by exploiting growing concern over coronary heart disease.

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In the 1950's scientists were studying possible dietary causes of the "disproportionately high rates" of death in American men caused by coronary heart disease. The studies looked at everything from cholesterol and excessive calories to fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals.

In a 1954 speech to a sugar industry association, SRF's president Henry Hass proposed they capitalize on nutritionists' suggestion that there might be a link between Americans' high-fat diet and these high rates of heart disease. What better time to shift the blame to saturated fats, while making sugar look like a delicious pick-me-up?

According to the study, the sugar industry would go on to spend the equivalent of $5.3 million in 2016 dollars on their campaign to get Americans to replace fat calories with calories from sugar. "At last people who never had a course in biochemistry are going to learn that sugar is what keeps every human being alive and with energy to face our daily problems," Hass said.

The SRF paid three Harvard scientists to publish a 1967 literature review that would discredit studies that showed a link between sugar and heart disease, while demonizing saturated fat.

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The SRF was even involved in selecting which studies were to be included in the review and was shown drafts before the two-part review's publication in 1967. When the review was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the SRF's role in funding and shaping the study was not disclosed. That's probably because the journal didn't start requiring study authors to disclose any conflicts of interest until 1984.

As a result, dietary recommendations at the time (and until recently) focused on reducing fat intake to prevent heart disease.

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In an op-ed accompanying the UCSF study, Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, explained that even though both sugar and saturated fat had been identified as having a link to heart disease, following the 1967 study saturated fat alone became the focus of scientists and dietary guidelines alike.

But in reality we now know that moderate amounts of saturated fat and added sugar can be part of a healthy diet.

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Neither experts nor the American Health Association recommend banning all sugar for all time; they simply recommend that we limit our daily intake to 6–9 teaspoons a day, or 24–36 grams. And as BuzzFeed Health has reported, saturated fats are no longer thought to be as uniquely and categorically disastrous to our heart health as we thought for many decades. A 2010 review of studies on fat concluded "there is no convincing evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease."

But Dr. Donald Hensrud, Medical Director of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, told BuzzFeed Health that we shouldn't exonerate saturated fats completely, because they do play some role in heart disease. It's just that scientists now understand that the impact of saturated fat on heart health is more complex than we previously thought.

For example, we now know that cholesterol levels are strongly influenced by genetics. And Hensrud explained that while moderate consumption of saturated fats in an otherwise healthy and balanced diet is probably fine for many people, a diet heavy in the saturated fats found in red meat and dairy to the exclusion of heart-healthy fats (i.e. the unsaturated fats in avocados, nuts, nut butters, etc.) would not be good for your cholesterol.

FYI, the food industry playing a role in nutrition research isn't an old timey practice that stopped in the '60s.

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Just last year the New York Times found that Coca-Cola was funding research that downplayed the effect of sugary drinks on obesity. And Nestle herself has been tallying food industry-funded nutrition studies and has found that 156 of 168 studies she identified had results that favored the funder.

The mingling of food industry interests with scientific research seriously undermines public health, says Nestle: "Food company sponsorship, whether or not intentionally manipulative, undermines public trust in nutrition science, contributes to public confusion about what to eat, and compromises Dietary Guidelines in ways that are not in the best interest of public health."

You can read the Sugar Association's statement in response to the UCSF article here.

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In their statement, the Sugar Association maintained that "the last several decades of research have concluded that sugar does not have a unique role in heart disease."

When BuzzFeed Health asked Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa to explain this, he said that "Recent research indeed points to the opposite finding."

Hensrud told BuzzFeed Health via email that the "relationship between sugar consumption and increased heart disease has become clearer over the years." He pointed to a 2014 study that the American Heart Association cites as the foundation of their sugar recommendations which "observed a significant relationship between added sugar consumption and increased risk for cardiovascular disease mortality."

Responding to BuzzFeed Health via email, Sugar Association spokesperson Tonya Allen said: “We maintain that a thorough review of the full body of scientific literature is needed to make a diet-disease relationship.”

Allen also pointed out the limitations of the 2014 study referenced by Dr. Hensrud and by the American Heart Association as bases for recommendations to eat less sugar, including that an observational study doesn’t prove cause and effect, and that multiple biological mechanisms may be required to fully explain the observed association between added sugar and cardiovascular disease risk.

UPDATE

This article has been updated to include a comment from the Sugar Association.

BuzzFeed Health has reached out to the study's authors for comment.

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