Culture

Debunking the Debunkers on Sugar

(Dreamstime image: HandadePictures)
There’s no evidence that the sugar industry ‘bribed’ scientists to ‘lie’ about heart disease.

Dr. Courtney Gaine is having a very bad week.

She and her colleagues have been receiving calls, e-mails, and tweets accusing them of killing hundreds of thousands of people and asking how they sleep at night. “I never anticipated the anger, the kind of personal attacks I’ve been getting. The best word I can use to describe this week is ‘sad.’”

Gaine, a scientist and dietician, is president/CEO of the Sugar Association, in Washington, D.C. The group represents sugar growers, processors, and refiners, and “supports new science and sharing knowledge to increase consumer understanding in the role sugar plays in a nutritious, balanced diet,” she said.

This week the group came under intense fire from the media and anti-sugar activists after researchers from the University of California–San Francisco (UCSF) accused the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), the group’s former name, of paying Harvard scientists in the 1960s to downplay any connection between sugar consumption and heart disease. At the time, the medical community was looking for reasons behind the rise in coronary heart disease; saturated fat and sugar were eyed as the key culprits, and scientists on both sides worked hard to blame the other (a debate that rages on today).

The UCSF researchers found a set of documents from that time showing that the sugar group paid $6,500 to compensate D. Mark Hegsted and Robert McGandy, nutrition professors at the Harvard School of Public Health, for preparing “a review article of the several papers which find some special metabolic peril in sucrose and, in particular, fructose.”

Hegsted, McGandy, and Fredrick Stare, chair of the Harvard University School of Public Health, conducted an extensive literature review and authored two reports concluding that “the major evidence today suggests only one avenue by which diet may affect the development and progression of atherosclerosis. This is by influencing the levels of serum lipids, especially serum cholesterol.” They went on to say that “there can be no doubt that levels of serum cholesterol can be substantially modified by manipulation of the fat and cholesterol of the diet.”

That conclusion wasn’t exactly revelatory, considering the era. Most in the medical and scientific community, from Dr. Ancel Keys, the author of an influential 1950s study of diet and health, to the American Heart Association, believed saturated fat and not sugar caused heart disease.

But because the Harvard scientists’ reports were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967 without disclosing the payments from SRF, activists say that proves the industry bought them off. “As the saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune,” said Stanton A. Glantz, a noted anti-tobacco activist and co-author of the UCSF paper. “There are all kinds of ways that you can subtly manipulate the outcome of a study, which industry is very well practiced at.”

(Ironically, the UCSF paper was also authored by two anti-sugar activists, Cristin Kearns and Laura Schmidt, who are with Sugarscience.org, a website offering the “unsweetened truth” about sugar and filled with anti-sugar reports and messaging. They did not disclose that association.)

After their paper was posted on a Journal of the American Medical Association website on September 12, the media went on a feeding frenzy. The New York Times broke the story with the headline “How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat.” Hyperbolic headlines soon followed: USA Today ran an article titled “How the Sugar Industry Lied about Heart Disease,” and CBS Philadelphia posted a story with the completely erroneous headline “Sugar May Cause Heart Disease.” Reason.com claimed the “Drafter of U.S. Dietary Goals Was Bribed by Big Sugar to Demonize Fat.” (Hegsted helped draft the first set of dietary guidelines in the late 1970s.)

Sadly, the Harvard scientists cannot defend themselves because they are dead.

“I don’t think I anticipated the magnitude of the coverage and the way it’s been conveyed,” said Gaine, a Ph.D. in nutritional sciences and biochemistry with a bachelor’s degree in dietetics from the University of Connecticut, where she was co-captain of the women’s basketball team. “Having been in the complicated nutrition-science field for almost 20 years, I find it discouraging every time nutrition is oversimplified, misconstrued, or exaggerated. At the end of the day, it’s consumers who lose.”

But the report and media coverage have little to do with science. It’s part of the growing and increasingly rancorous anti-sugar campaign funded by wealthy benefactors like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “It’s very coordinated, nothing is off limits,” Gaine said.

Sugar is an easy target for many food activists because it lets them vilify both big food corporations and biotechnology.

The media pile-on aimed at the sugar industry couldn’t have come at a better time for anti-sugar activists. On November 8, voters in Oakland and San Francisco will be asked to approve a one-penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, and passage would be a huge win for the movement. Their neighbors in Berkeley passed the country’s first tax on such beverages back in 2014; last month, a dubious study from UC–Berkeley based on street interviews asserted that consumption of beverages affected by the tax had declined 21 percent and water consumption had increased 63 percent in that city since the tax was instituted.

Sugar is an easy target for many food activists because it lets them vilify both big food corporations and biotechnology, since most of the sweeteners we use are derived from genetically engineered crops (sugar beets and corn). Activists are ramping up their efforts worldwide and will get a big boost from Bloomberg, who was named the World Health Organization’s Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases in August and pledges to “discourage the consumption of foods and beverages high in sugars, salt and fat.”

That’s why Gaine doesn’t expect the misinformation and personal attacks to stop anytime soon. She admits that the scientists should have disclosed their funding back in 1967 but emphasizes that their findings still stand today. “Now, 50 years and thousands of studies later, there’s still no scientific evidence that sugar causes heart disease.”

That may be little consolation for the families of those scientists who’ve had their reputations damaged by activist researchers and an agenda-driven media. “It’s a horrible environment,” Gaine said.

Indeed.

— Julie Kelly is a food-policy writer in Orland Park, Ill.

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