Bittersweet: The Sugar Industry and its Influence on Health Research

 

A newly published article in JAMA Internal Medicine reveals that the sugar industry funded research that shifted attention towards fatty foods away from the effects of sugar on health. It all began in the 1960s, when a new body of evidence came to expose links between sugar consumption and coronary disease.

In response to these reports, an industry group called the Sugar Research Foundation began to fund studies that “refuted” those concerns. It allocated $50,000 of today’s money just for that, sponsoring Harvard scientists to conduct research. In 1967, these scientists published an article along those lines. The new article in JAMA Internal Medicine notes that one of the researchers was the chairman of Harvard’s Public Health Nutrition Department —and an ad hoc member of SRF’s board.

The special interest group’s policy on research boiled down to using different standards for different work. Thus, research seen as adverse was criticized. Articles that zeroed in on sugar as a possible cause for heart disease were faulted for omitting too many other possible factors. Conversely, methodological flaws were ignored in the case of studies that “sugarcoated” the dubious effects of sugar on health.

The JAMA article points out that as late as 2015 The New York Times exposed “Coca-Cola’s cozy relationships with sponsored researchers who were conducting studies aimed at minimizing the effects of sugary drinks on obesity.” In addition, “the Associated Press obtained emails showing how a candy trade association funded and influenced studies to show that children who eat sweets have healthier body weights than those who do not.”

This certainly calls for renewed vigilance on the standards and ethics of scientific research. Impartiality is paramount. At the same time, it goes on to show a shrewd perception on the part of special interest groups. They are keenly aware of how scientific research as seen as more reliable. Naturally, they also count on the trickled-down effect of academic studies the wider public usually does not read, but that that have an outsize influence in shaping widely held views.

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