In the early 1950s, warning signs appeared that linked sugar consumption to coronary heart disease. But by the mid-1960s, the New England Journal of Medicine had published studies — secretly sponsored by industry trade group the Sugar Research Foundation — that pointed a finger instead at fat and cholesterol, citing these as the dietary factors causing coronary heart disease and obscuring the role played by sucrose.
That's the thrust of a paper published in Monday's JAMA Internal medicine, the result of research by lead author Cristin Kearns, a UCSF researcher and post-doctoral fellow. Covering the study, the Chronicle writes that the early information Kearns used was available in public archives, leading Kearns and her UCSF co-authors to publish a paper in the journal PLOS Medicine last year. That first paper had to do with dental cavities — Kearns was originally a dentist — and yesterday's paper focused on cardiovascular disease risks.
"[Our] findings suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in [coronary heart disease]," the paper's abstract explains. That involved the Sugar Research Foundation paying the equivalent of $50,000 in today's dollars to Harvard researchers who published in the New England Journal of Medicine, all the while discussing their process and sharing drafts with the Sugar Research Foundation.
“They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” UCSF professor Stanton Glantz, an author on the paper, told the New York Times.
"We acknowledge that the Sugar Research Foundation should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities," reads a statement from that group, now called simply the Sugar Foundation. "[However] when the studies in question were published funding disclosures and transparency standards were not the norm they are today."
Ultimately, the foundation concludes, "Most concerning is the growing use of headline-baiting articles to trump quality scientific research—we’re disappointed to see a journal of JAMA’s stature being drawn into this trend." Sorry, this does make for pretty good headlines — and that's not really what's "most concerning," is it?