[Editor's Note: We are republishing this piece, largely unchanged, because it documented a nutrition scandal as it broke, and serves as a reminder that the information we are served by food industry interests should be viewed with skepticism.]
In the past two weeks, we've had some pretty big media revelations about the sugar industry's involvement in shaping dietary policy for the past half century. A group of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco were allowed to go through old records from the Sugar Research Foundation (abbrev. SRF, the precursor to the modern Sugar Association) and what they found, at the very least, certainly gives the appearance of impropriety between sugar industry executives and medical researchers in the 1950s and 60s.
If you happen to have a subscription to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), you can read both the full case study as well as an editorial on the subject by one of the researchers here and here, respectively.
Luckily for the rest of us, the mainstream news media picked up on this study in a big way. At least four major news publications ran big, splashy pieces on the results the researchers released and all four seem to take some different angles on the information therein.
The New York Times has a good overview of what was found in the study: namely that the SRF paid, in today's inflation dollars, the equivalent of over fifty grand to researchers over a decade (the late 1950s through the late 1960s) specifically to find evidence that would minimize the links between sugar consumption and heart disease, as well as aid in shifting the focus of heart disease research and study to dietary fat consumption. Up until that point, there had been some very convincing evidence coming in that sugar was indeed linked to increased risk of heart disease and the sugar industry was looking to counter.
Time Magazine covered the story, and included some very disturbing quotations from a speech given by then president of the SRF in 1954 that is highly suggestive of the motive: business expansion. The gentleman in question estimated that a shift in public policy that pushed people into consuming a low fat, higher carbohydrate diet would increase sugar consumption per capita by at least one third.
Time and the NYT have both reported previously on the sugar industry's influence in shaping public policy and education on tooth decay and cavities that minimized sugar's role in poor dental health, as well as the recent discovery of soda and candy manufacturing's heavy involvement in funding research intended to downplay the consumption of those sugar-laden products in the obesity epidemic.
Both the piece in Time and an additional piece in NPR take a look at the way the paid researchers qualified and disqualified information about consumption of sugar and dietary fats:
"What struck me was that I thought the evidence the researchers summarized in the review was stronger and more consistent for a sugar effect [on coronary heart disease] than for a fat effect," says study author Stanton Glantz of UCSF. "No matter how good the evidence was linking sugar to heart disease, there was something wrong with it. But for fat, the evidence was fine. They set up a false dichotomy."
The subject was also picked up by Business Insider. The BI piece ties the released JAMA study to the issue of dietary fat consumption and the meta-analysis from 2015 in BMJ's Open Heart. The researchers there indicated they did not believe there was ever enough evidence to convict and condemn dietary fat and cholesterol as the primary cause of heart disease, much less to promote low fat diets as a matter of public policy.
The BI piece does have a slant against saturated fats, as the experts they interview seem to retain that bias. However, they at least admit that the evidence coming in now appears to largely exonerate dietary fats and concede that saturated fat in particular isn't the evil we once believed it to be.
Lastly, I highly, highly recommend this piece by Dr. Jason Fung from his Intensive Dietary Management website. Dr. Fung discusses the state of "continuing medical education" (or CME) that doctors and other health professionals receive, which ostensibly keeps them "up to date" on current medical information, technology, techniques, and treatments. Read the entire thing, as it is quite shocking for those not already familiar with the deep involvement of the pharmaceutical industry in our doctors offices and hospitals.
The major takeaway is that our food and medical industries have become just that: Industries. Big Business. What should be, at its core, about feeding, nourishing, and caring for the health of the population has become instead very much about the bottom line.
That's not to disparage individual farmers or doctors. There are many, many people involved in the day-to-day functioning of these industries that are genuinely trying to do right by their fellow man, and of course they should be compensated fairly for their work. At the same time, it's important for us to remember Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The scale of what was once a vocation or a personal calling to heal and/or feed your neighbor has increased dramatically, and with that comes money and power. The very human temptation to manipulate events in your own favor are exceptionally strong when your wallet is on the line and the people in charge of our food supply and health care are, unfortunately, not immune.