The Great Sugar Cover-Up
Sugar Industry Paid Harvard Researchers to Exonerate SugarOctober 2017
By Michael Downey
What did the Tobacco Institute and Sugar Research Foundation have in common?
They both covered up lethal effects of products sold by their financial benefactors.
Back in the 1960s-1970s, concerns were raised about the adverse effects of excess sugar consumption.
To counteract public perception, the sugar industry bought and paid for Harvard studies that downplayed the harm caused by their product.1
Complicit in this conspiracy were highly prominent scientists whose study “conclusions” influenced generations of Americans to eat unhealthy, sugar-laden foods.
Together, these scientists and their food-industry partners may have been responsible for widespread suffering and millions of premature deaths.
Of interest to readers of this magazine, one of the Harvard professors who proclaimed sugar to be safe was also a vociferous critic of dietary supplements.
In the early 1980s we at Life Extension® had to rebut assertions from this Harvard professor that people should enjoy a Coca Cola® between meals and avoid supplementing with nutrients shown to reduce disease risk.
This article exposes the facts behind the great sugar cover up and the horrific impact it has had on human health.
The Smoking Gun
Last year, a grisly discovery uncovered the role of the sugar industry in intentionally covering up the lethal dangers of foods and drinks that spike blood glucose levels.
These new revelations, published online on September 12, 2016, by JAMA Internal Medicine,1 came to light after Dr. Cristin Kearns made a discovery while digging through old, dusty boxes of correspondence in a Harvard library basement.
Dr. Kearns is a dentist-turned-researcher from the University of California-San Francisco. She found letters between a sugar industry group and two famous Harvard nutritionists, Dr. Fredrick Stare and Dr. D. Mark Hegsted—and the fingerprints of collusion were all over them.
Dr. Stare founded the department of nutrition at Harvard in 1942 and was regularly sought out by the media as the expert on healthy eating. Dr. Hegsted was a member of that department, subsequently holding key positions with the US Department of Agriculture and various top advisory bodies.
Dr. Kearns’s paper exposes how Drs. Stare and Hegsted, both now deceased, worked closely with a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, which successfully influenced public understanding of sugar’s role in disease.1
Dr. Kearns’ deep dive into archives of that era revealed clear evidence that a sugar industry association did more than merely sponsor key review studies on sugar—they controlled them from beginning to end.
The sugar industry association initiated the studies in the first place and influenced their results with the specific goal of eliminating any evidence of sugar as a major risk for coronary heart disease.1
Some studies had shown a relationship between high-sugar diets and coronary heart disease. But Big Sugar wanted scientists to focus instead on the link between coronary heart disease and dietary fat and cholesterol.1
The sugar association paid the equivalent of over $48,000 in today’s dollars to a trio of respected Harvard nutrition professors—Drs. Stare and Hegsted and another Harvard scientist, Robert McGandy—to produce a research paper to be published in an esteemed peer-reviewed journal.1 The express objective was to shift the blame for coronary heart disease away from sugar.
Shifting the Blame to Saturated Fat
The biased research review that the sugar association bought appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967. It acknowledged “support” from the sugar industry-funded Nutrition Foundation but failed to mention that the sugar association had specifically paid the scientists and requested rewrites of the report.2,3
The first installment demonstrated a close correlation between the amounts of sugar and fat in the diet and mortality in 14 countries. To minimize sugar’s involvement, the study team apparently cherry-picked the data—despite having previously published studies linking both fats and sugars to coronary heart disease risk—to lend much greater credence to the studies implicating saturated fat rather than those indicting sugar.2,3
The early publications2,3 by the Harvard scientists tore apart studies that implicated sugar in coronary heart disease and concluded that there was only one dietary change that could prevent it—reducing saturated fat and cholesterol intake. Their official stance discredited the research-proven dangers of sugar.
This wasn’t the only instance in which the sugar industry meddled in scientific studies.
In 2015, Dr. Kearns co-published a paper in PLoS Medicine revealing how Big Sugar influenced a federal dental-research program to shift focus to other avenues—such as finding a vaccine for tooth decay—instead of exploring the benefits of eating less sugar.4
These early instances of avoiding any blame for sugar in coronary and other diseases had a long and disproportionate impact on dietary guidance for many decades, an impact that lingers to this day.
However, the sugar industry would not have been able to manipulate public opinion and public policy so vastly, and for so many decades, if it were not able to buy Dr. Stare and Dr. Hegsted, two of the most prominent and respected nutrition scientists of that era.
Dr. Frederick J. Stare
We may never know whether 100% of Dr. Stare’s nutrition pronouncements were paid for by food giants or whether a few were simply his own wrongheaded opinions. He claimed, for instance, that what Americans ate could not possibly harm their health.5
Here are just some of Stare’s more unhealthy recommendations and outrageous claims that had enormous influence among the government, media, mainstream medicine, and several generations of the public—and that clearly served the interests of corporate foods:
- Vitamin supplements are unnecessary for any normal, healthy person.5
- Sugar is a quick energy food…put a teaspoon in coffee or tea three or four times a day.5
- Coca-Cola is a healthy between-meals snack.5
- Americans should drink a cup of corn oil a day.5
- We get as much food value from enriched refined foods as from natural foods, and sometimes more.6
- Eat food additives—they’re good for you.5,6
- For all practical purposes, white bread and brown bread are identical in food values.6
Did evidence play any part in Stare’s conclusions—or simply the financial might of his department’s funders? In any case, his public stances, endorsed by his position at Harvard, may have been responsible for untold levels of unnecessary disease, morbidity, and death.
It’s impossible to blame Stare for all deaths from public consumption of excess sugar over the past 50 years. But it’s worth noting that the number of worldwide deaths from ischemic heart disease, stroke, and diabetes that are specifically caused by elevated blood glucose was estimated in 2006 to be about 3.2 million every year.7-9
The death toll from higher-than-optimal blood glucose accounts for 21% of all ischemic heart disease deaths and 13% of all stroke deaths.7
At this mortality rate, total deaths over 50 years from excess sugar intake could equal 158 million! That grim number is more than double the overall number of deaths resulting from World Wars I and II combined.10
Dr. D. Mark Hegsted
Harvard scientist Dr. D. Mark Hegsted helped draft the 1977 Senate committee report, “Dietary Goals for the United States,” that led to the country’s first dietary guidelines. He later managed the Department of Agriculture’s human nutrition unit.1,11,12 That he would have subverted the course of investigations into dietary sugar is shocking, but the evidence uncovered by Kearns is undeniable.
John Hickson, vice president and director of research for the Sugar Research Foundation, struck a deal with scientists Hegsted, Stare, and McGandy to pay for a review “to refute our detractors.”
Hickson pointed to at least five articles for this review that had implicated sugar as a health threat and that he wanted panned—with “fat metabolism” being implicated instead.1
Letters show that Hegsted continued communicating with the Sugar Research Foundation even as he wrote up the research review, with Hickson assuring him along the way that he was pleased with what the study author was writing.
Most compelling, Hegsted wrote to the trade group to explain the reason for a delay—Iowa researchers had produced new evidence linking sugar to coronary heart disease.1 “Every time the Iowa group publishes a paper, we have to rework a section in rebuttal,” Hegsted wrote.1
In apparent violation of ethical procedure, Hickson was allowed to review drafts of the paper before it was finalized.1
When the papers were later published, the Harvard authors did disclose other industry funding—yet made no mention of the Sugar Research Foundation’s involvement.1
Industry-Suppressed Facts About Sugar
It is worth remembering that these events occurred at a time when research teams were battling over the question of whether sugar or fat was contributing to coronary heart disease caused by the buildup of plaque in the arteries of the heart.
While both were implicated in early studies, the Harvard research reviews that were initiated and paid for by the sugar industry helped shift the emphasis of the discussion away from sugar and onto fat. This delayed the development of a scientific consensus on the sugar/heart-disease link for decades. The sugar trade group was even able to cite the studies—which they had commissioned and controlled—in pamphlets that they then provided to policymakers.
As a consequence, for decades, health authorities urged Americans to lower their fat intake—recommendations that led millions to consume low-fat, high-sugar foods that many nutritionists now blame for fueling the obesity and metabolic crisis.1
Over 50 years later, evidence that sugar is a strong risk factor for coronary heart disease has finally accumulated. But that message has not been fully reaching the general public or even most mainstream medical practitioners.
We now know that excess glucose damages the delicate endothelial lining of arteries, setting the stage for coronary and cerebral vascular disease.13 Elevated blood sugar levels also increase the risk of cataract and retinal damage.14,15
Like the eyes, the kidneys are a site of intense metabolic activity and are rich in tiny blood vessels (capillaries) that make them particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of glucose (and advanced glycation end products).16
Excess fructose consumption increases the risk of abnormal lipid profiles and inflammation,17,18 and in fact, the highest consumers of sugar-sweetened beverages have a 20% higher risk of coronary heart disease.19
Also, abundant research links high-normal blood glucose levels to increased breast cancer risk.20-22 And 2012 findings showed that blood glucose at the high end of normal boosts the risk of significant brain shrinkage in the hippocampus and amygdala, regions involved in memory and other critical cognitive functions.23
The Implications for Scientific Research
In the same issue in which Kearns’ discovery was presented, the JAMA Internal Medicine published a commentary by Marion Nestle, a nutrition expert at New York University who wrote:24
“This 50-year-old incident may seem like ancient history, but it is quite relevant, not least because it answers some questions germane to our current era. Is it really true that food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research in their favor? Yes, it is, and the practice continues.”24
In 1984, the New England Journal of Medicine began requiring authors to disclose conflicts of interest.1,25
But as noted in this JAMA expose, The New York Times obtained emails in 2015 that revealed “cozy” links between Coca-Cola and researchers they sponsored who were conducting studies on the effects of sugary drinks on obesity. More recently, the Associated Press secured emails showing how a candy trade association influenced studies to report that children who eat sweets have a healthier weight.24
Studies such as these—and any influence on them by related industries—have great significance for public health. Ultimately, scientific reviews shape policy debates, the direction of further investigative research, and federal agencies’ funding priorities.
Kearns’ sugar industry revelations represent rare and concrete evidence that the food industry—like the tobacco industry before it—has meddled in the critical science that directly and substantially affects the health of all Americans. And recent examples show that this dangerous influence continues to this day.
As reported in JAMA Internal Medicine—referring to those “cozy links” between sugar-based industries and “independent” researchers—“Science is not supposed to work that way.”24
Many still view sugar merely as a source of “naked calories,” devoid of nutritive value but otherwise harmless.
Although early studies connected sugar to coronary heart disease, this evidence was suppressed by tainted reviews in the 1960s and 1970s that blamed coronary heart disease on saturated fat and cholesterol while exonerating sugar.
Finally, hard evidence from JAMA Internal Medicine reveals that these major reviews on sugar’s health effects were bought by the sugar industry—potentially causing millions of premature deaths over the decades.
Tragically, according to a commentary in the same JAMA issue, this influence by food industry groups continues to this day.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Wellness Specialist at 1-866-864-3027.
- Kearns CE, Schmidt LA, Glantz SA. Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(11):1680-5.
- McGandy RB, Hegsted DM, Stare FJ. Dietary fats, carbohydrates and atherosclerotic vascular disease. N Engl J Med. 1967;277(4):186-92 contd.
- McGandy RB, Hegsted DM, Stare FJ. Dietary fats, carbohydrates and atherosclerotic vascular disease. N Engl J Med. 1967;277(5):245-7 concl.
- Kearns CE, Glantz SA, Schmidt LA. Sugar industry influence on the scientific agenda of the National Institute of Dental Research’s 1971 National Caries Program: a historical analysis of internal documents. PLoS Med. 2015;12(3):e1001798.
- Available at: http://www.economist.com/node/1086689. Accessed June 30, 2017.
- Available at: https://www.seleneriverpress.com/historical/open-letters-concerning-dr-frederick-j-stare-modern-nutrition-magazine/. Accessed June 30, 2017.
- Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/health/thepulse/stories/2006/11/30/1800833.htm. Accessed June 30, 2017.
- Available at: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/high-blood-sugar-adds-to-heart-disease-death-toll-1.589064. Accessed June 30, 2017.
- Danaei G, Lawes CM, Vander Hoorn S, et al. Global and regional mortality from ischaemic heart disease and stroke attributable to higher-than-optimum blood glucose concentration: comparative risk assessment. Lancet. 2006;368(9548):1651-9.
- Available at: http://www.diffen.com/difference/World_War_I_vs_World_War_II. Accessed June 30, 2017.
- Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/09/health/09hegsted.html. Accessed February 6, 2017.
- Available at: http://zerodisease.com/archive/Dietary_Goals_For_The_United_States.pdf. Accessed February 8, 2017.
- Makimattila S, Virkamaki A, Groop PH, et al. Chronic hyperglycemia impairs endothelial function and insulin sensitivity via different mechanisms in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. Circulation. 1996;94(6):1276-82.
- Giusti C, Gargiulo P. Advances in biochemical mechanisms of diabetic retinopathy. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2007;11(3):155-63.
- Pokupec R, Kalauz M, Turk N, et al. Advanced glycation endproducts in human diabetic and non-diabetic cataractous lenses. Graefes Arch Clin Exp Ophthalmol. 2003;241(5):378-84.
- Hall PM. Prevention of Progression in Diabetic Nephropathy. Diabetes Spectrum. 2006;19(1):18-24.
- Aeberli I, Gerber PA, Hochuli M, et al. Low to moderate sugar-sweetened beverage consumption impairs glucose and lipid metabolism and promotes inflammation in healthy young men: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94(2):479-85.
- Koo HY, Wallig MA, Chung BH, et al. Dietary fructose induces a wide range of genes with distinct shift in carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in fed and fasted rat liver. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2008;1782(5):341-8.
- de Koning L, Malik VS, Kellogg MD, et al. Sweetened beverage consumption, incident coronary heart disease, and biomarkers of risk in men. Circulation. 2012;125(14):1735-41, s1.
- Liao S, Li J, Wei W, et al. Association between diabetes mellitus and breast cancer risk: a meta-analysis of the literature. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2011;12(4):1061-5.
- Muti P, Quattrin T, Grant BJ, et al. Fasting glucose is a risk factor for breast cancer: a prospective study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2002;11(11):1361-8.
- Sieri S, Muti P, Claudia A, et al. Prospective study on the role of glucose metabolism in breast cancer occurrence. Int J Cancer. 2012;130(4):921-9.
- Cherbuin N, Sachdev P, Anstey KJ. Higher normal fasting plasma glucose is associated with hippocampal atrophy: The PATH Study. Neurology. 2012;79(10):1019-26.
- Nestle M. Food Industry Funding of Nutrition Research: The Relevance of History for Current Debates. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(11):1685-6.
- Available at: http://www.nejm.org/page/media-center/integrity-safeguards. Accessed February 6, 2017.