The sugar industry, saying it was blamed unfairly for its role in heart disease, pointed to fat as the real culprit and funded the research to prove beginning in the 1960s.
An analysis published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, shows how the food industry has been trying to shape Americans’ understanding of nutrition. The analysis examines correspondence between the Sugar Association trade group and researchers at Harvard University to address “negative attitudes toward sugar.”
In 1965, the association approved “Project 226,” paying Harvard researchers to write an article indicating there was “no doubt” reducing cholesterol and saturated fat was the best way to prevent heart disease, downplaying sugar’s role, the analysis found. The sugar industry’s funding was not disclosed in the article.
The industry spent $600,000 ($5.3 million in 2016 dollars) to teach “people who had never had a course in biochemistry… that sugar is what keeps every human being alive and with energy to face our daily problems,” the analysis said.
More recent research has indicated fat may not be the main culprit in the development of heart disease, but scientists still are trying to understand the relationship between diet and heart trouble. A 2014 study laid the blame on too much added sugar.
The Sugar Association issued a statement Monday questioning the author’s “attempts to reframe historical occurrences to conveniently align with the currently trending anti-sugar narrative.” The association said it can’t comment on something that occurred more than 50 years ago but noted transparency standards were different then than they are now.
The JAMA article is part of a project by former dentist Cristin Kearns who has been working to reveal the sugar industry’s effort to counter studies linking sugar to such ill-health effects as diabetes.
“Our findings suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in” heart disease, the article said.
A backlash against sugar has prompted efforts to tax sugary soft drinks as well as decisions by cereal-makers and others to reduce the sugar content of their products.
The analysis recommends policymakers give less weight to food industry-funded studies in making decisions.
A study published earlier this year in the Lancet found reducing the sugar content of drinks by 40 percent over five years could reduce the number of overweight and obese individuals in Britain by 1.5 million and the number of type 2 diabetes cases by 300,000.