When the revelation of a long-buried conspiracy by the sugar industry to blame fat for sugar-related health problems came to light last week, many heads nodded knowingly. There have been whispers for years about the topsy-turvy health advice handed down by the mainstream media and health establishment, recommending low-fat diets for people who wanted to live longer, healthier lives. When we dutifully kicked fat to the curb, we often made up for the missing calories by ingesting more carbohydrates, likely bringing on the obesity epidemic.
In the 1960s, the sugar industry purchased some desirable yet misleading science reporting that changed the way Americans would eat for decades. Just as the tobacco industry waged a misinformation campaign to promote cigarette sales (to unhealthy effect), the sugar industry campaign included paying Harvard scientists to review some hand-picked publications and publish severely questionable conclusions in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in 1967. The Harvard team was well aware of who was paying them and what kind of report the sugar industry was expected, and they indicated that they were happy to comply, printing the doctored results with no indication that this was essentially a paid commercial for the sugar industry.
Even as more and more studies were being released implicating sugar consumption as a risk for coronary artery disease, the Harvard review minimized the plausibility of the anti-sugar science while playing up any connection to fat to practically fictional levels. As NPR reports, large scale studies that looked at real-world health and disease patterns were dismissed as having too many confounding factors, while a health benefit that was found to accrue to individuals who ate less sugar and more vegetables was downplayed because making that dietary change was “not feasible.” It would appear to be no accident that the American obesity epidemic exploded in the years following the directive to eat more carbohydrates and less fat of all kinds.
Rigged science is old news. For instance, there’s a high correlation between pharmaceutical industry funding of a drug study and the favorability of the result. As Scientific American notes in an article about research trials, “[s]ince every industry sponsored trial had a positive result, that’s all you’d need to know about a piece of work to predict its outcome: if it was funded by industry, you could know with absolute certainty that the trial found the drug was great.” Another example of bad science is when data is thrown out because it doesn’t yield the desired result. But once bad science is discovered, it behooves both industry and the science establishment to root it out.
However embarrassed the sugar industry might be about the now-deceased men who conspired to increase sugar’s prominence at the cost of Americans’ health, the question now is where we go from here. Doctors like Dwight Lundell and authors such as Lierre Keith have spoken from the sidelines to restore fat (and demote sugar) to more appropriate places in the diet for years, only to be summarily dismissed with comments like, “That’s not what my doctor says is true!” Will doctors rethink their anti-fat positions in light of new evidence of sugar industry (and Harvard) corruption, as befits true scientists?
Perhaps more importantly, will the American public stop it with the “low-fat everything” craze? When fat is removed from foods, it is often replaced by increasing the amount of sugar or other carbohydrates, leading to what’s known as the “Snackwell Effect.” This is when people eat more of a low-fat or other “virtuous” version of a food than they would of the regular version, ironically consuming more sugar or calories than they would have otherwise. While it’s still important to practice moderation (especially for a sedentary civilization that doesn’t need to eat as much as our more active ancestors did), will people be willing to listen to the evidence that was hushed all along, such as the importance of nourishing fats to human health and the damaging effect of a diet high in carbohydrates? Or are we too stuck in our sticky sugar ways, too unwilling to discern the difference between unhealthy hydrogenated and simply saturated fats, too steeped in the received wisdom of half a century of bought-and-paid-for diet advice from the sugar industry to change our minds? Are we so embarrassed at being snookered by Big Sugar that the backfire effect will kick in?
As always, keep in mind that no one diet is right for everybody, there are many factors to consider, and dammit Jim, I’m a writer, not a doctor. Be smart and make the best decisions for your own health.
Sugar Industry Paid Scientists for Favourable Research. Video by The National