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18 September 2016

How the Sugar Industry Has Distorted Health Science for More Than 50 Years

Sugar, not just fat, can carry heart risks.  Why haven't
you heard about them?  
Marcos Mesa San Wordley/ Shutterstock
How the sugar industry has distorted health science for more than 50 years
by Julia Belluz @juliaoftoronto julia.belluz@voxmedia.com,  
12 September 2016

The sugar industry has a long history of shaping nutrition policy in the United States, working to mask the potential risks of consuming too much of the sweet stuff.

It wasn’t until this year, for instance, that the US Dietary Guidelines finally recommended people keep their consumption of added sugars below 10 percent of their total calorie intake — decades after health advocates began pressing for the measure. The sugar lobby had fended off this recommendation all the while.

New research, published today in JAMA Internal Medicine, shows that Big Sugar may have done more than just advocate for favorable policies. Going back more than 50 years, the industry has been distorting scientific research by dictating what questions get asked about sugar, particularly questions around sugar’s role in promoting heart disease.

The paper focuses on a debate that first popped up in the 1950s, when the rate of heart disease started to shoot up in the United States. Scientists began searching for answers, and zeroed in on dietary saturated fat as the leading contributor. (The energy we get from food comes in three kinds of nutrients: fats, carbohydrates, and protein.)

This may not have been an accident. Through an examination of archival documents, theJAMA paper shows how a sugar trade association helped boost the hypothesis that eating too much saturated fat was the major cause of the nation’s heart problems, while creating doubt about the evidence showing that sugar could be a culprit too. Sugar increases triglycerides in the blood, which may also help harden the arteries and thicken artery walls — driving up the risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease.

Today, scientific consensus related to the role specific macronutrients play in the diet has shifted. Researchers have come around to the view that a person’s overall eating habitsprobably matter more for health than the particular percentages of carbs, fats, and proteins taken in. But they also generally agree that some kinds of fats are less damaging to health than others. (In particular, unsaturated fats appear to be better for one's cardiovascular disease risk than saturated and trans fats.) And that too much sugar can bejust as bad as too much fat for the heart.

The new JAMA paper reveals why the public may know less about the sugar-heart link than it ought to.

How the sugar industry played down the role of sugar in heart disease

Beginning in the 1950s, notes the JAMA paper, led by Cristin Kearns of UC San Francisco, a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation was concerned about evidence showing that a low-fat diet high in sugar might raise cholesterol levels in the blood.

If sugar turned out to be a major driver of heart issues, the group surmised, that could be devastating for sugar producers.

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