What the Sugar Industry Didn’t Want Us to Know About Heart Disease

For decades, we considered saturated fat and cholesterol to be the demons in our diets when it came to heart disease. It was the message consistently presented by the American Heart Association (they still recommend limiting saturated fat). And it’s what the science pointed us to believe: cut down on saturated fat because it’s linked to an increased risk of heart disease. So what did we do? Replaced bacon with muffins, chose sugary cereals over buttered toast and eggs, and almost always went for the low-fat option—which usually meant more sugar in our diets.

But according to a new report published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) may have helped cover up links between sugar and heart disease in the 1960s. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) found letters between the SRF and prominent nutrition researchers. In 1965, the SRF paid research scientists Mark Hegsted and Robert McGandy the equivalent of $48,900 in today’s dollars to write a review of papers that found sugar to be detrimental, letting the researchers know their objectives and interests were to make sure that sugar looked more favorable than fat in the diet. This took place in an era before scientists had to disclose conflicts of interest or affiliations at the time of publication, like they must do now. The review they published in the New England Journal of Medicine, in 1967, recommended decreasing dietary cholesterol and saturated fat to help prevent heart disease. Despite reviewing research on sugar and increased risk of heart disease, they did not recommend cutting down on sugar for a healthier heart.

The Sugar Association (formerly the SRF) released a statement in response. They acknowledged that they should have been more transparent but said, “It is challenging for us to comment on events that allegedly occurred 60 years ago, and on documents we have never seen. Generally speaking, it is not only unfortunate but a disservice that industry-funded research is branded as tainted. What is often missing from the dialogue is that industry-funded research has been informative in addressing key issues.” They went on to add, “The Sugar Association is always seeking to further understand the role of sugar and health, but we rely on quality science and facts to drive our assertions.”

These findings are interesting and raise lots of questions. Can we trust nutrition science? Do we need to take everything we read with a grain of salt (or in this case, sugar)? Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., EatingWell advisor, NYU professor and food policy writer, published commentary in JAMA alongside the report. She says when evaluating research you need to “ask a few simple questions: Did the study ask an important question? Does the result make sense in light of what you already know about the topic? Who funded it? Did the authors have any financial ties to the funder?” Industry-funded nutrition studies will continue to take place and Nestle does think it’s a huge problem with nutrition research. “Most industry funded studies are designed for marketing purposes or to deflect criticism of the product. This is marketing research.”

We’re going to have to continue to be skeptical and thorough as we review new nutrition studies. What we know now: Eating too much sugar is detrimental to your health. It can increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily for women, no more than 9 teaspoons for men. Plus, too much added sugar pushes out the good stuff: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins, healthy fats.

Lisa D’Agrosa

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