Recent findings that Harvard research was funded by sugar industry isn’t anything new

The long and storied history of prepaid science

Newly revealed documents show that the sugar industry funded research in the 1960s that cast blame for coronary heart disease on fat, with results more favorable towards sugar.

These findings, which were published by JAMA Internal Medicine, were discovered by former dentist Cristin Kearns, who found revealing letters in a basement of a Harvard library. The documents provide evidence that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, which is still active today as the Sugar Association, paid Harvard researchers Robert McGandy and Mark Hegsted the current equivalent of just under US$50,000. The two, along with fellow researcher Fredrick Stare, worked alongside the sugar industry and provided research that shifted public opinion for decades.

The Sugar Research Foundation’s contribution, which was not disclosed after the original study was published, sponsored a review published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1965. The study not only pointed to fat and high cholesterol and the sole cause of coronary heart disease, it also barely considered sucrose as a risk factor. The SRF received drafts of the study and provided supplemental information for the researchers to use.

The JAMA study also warns that “policymaking committees should consider giving less weight to food industry-funded studies.”

The Sugar Association has taken a defensive stance since the JAMA study was published.

“What is often missing from the dialogue is that industry-funded research has been informative in addressing key issues,” the Sugar Association said in a statement.

“We question this author’s continued attempts to reframe historical occurrences to conveniently align with the currently trending anti-sugar narrative, particularly when the last several decades of research have concluded that sugar does not have a unique role in heart disease.”

While sugar and fat have both been noted as contributing factors to heart disease more recently, these early studies were widely used by everyday people and fellow researchers alike, and almost certainly affected the direction and focus of future studies.

The ethical dilemma of the industry-funded scientific study is not exactly a past issue. While the Sugar Association refers to its “historical occurrences” as “convenient,” there is no shortage of not-so-historical evidence that big food companies and trade organizations continue to pay for research.

Just last year, Coca-Cola was under fire for backing research that claimed that overt exercise was the most proficient way to lose weight and be healthy, as opposed to cutting caloric intake. The study, which was provided by non-profit organization Global Energy Balance Network, received a US$1.5 million charitable donation by Coca-Cola.

This is only one incidence in a long history of shady dealings between Coca-Cola and nutritional “experts.” The Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness is an organization set up by Coca-Cola that produces studies that distract away from topics that could affect sales, like aspartame’s possible side effects, or the correlation between soda and weight gain.

While it may feel like common knowledge to you that something with as wide a reach as Coca-Cola might have hands in the research industry, what may be surprising is that even food companies with slightly better public reputations do this too. General Mills funds the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, who in turn have hired “nutrition communicators” to both congratulate General Mills – again, the company who funds them – on improving the healthy qualities of their cereals, and to promote studies that ignore the negative effects of sugary breakfast cereals.

Michele Simon, author of Best Public Relations Money Could Buy: A Guide to Industry Front Groups, writes that big food companies creating “research groups” is a way to promote biased research without getting their hands dirty.

“Most branded food companies (such as McDonald’s or Coca-Cola) have millions of dollars invested in their public image and so would rather not engage in the under-handed and mean-spirited tactics that some front groups utilize,” she writes.

“It’s much safer to give money to front groups to let them do the dirty work while the corporate brand image remains clean.”

Industry-funded scientific research is everywhere, and not just in the food industry. Recent studies show that as many as half of the “life hacks” presented on the immensely popular Dr. Oz Show either lack concrete evidence or are blatantly wrong. Leaked emails have since connected him with Sony Entertainment. The emails refer to Sony’s decision to enter the wearable fitness device market, and insinuate that Oz is looking to establish a business relationship. No mention of possible health benefits or research of any kind is made in the leaked emails.

So what is the answer? It’s an open secret that Big Food is actively promoting sometimes-faulty science to support their own brands, and we now have some evidence that this might have been happening for decades. The unfortunate truth is that at this point, nutrition researchers need funding from massively wealthy companies like Coca-Cola to survive. Receiving unbiased grants from government institutes is not always easy, and they are not always as large as the sums big companies can offer.

When you are doing your own research, and making your own decisions, finding unbiased research is key. It is not always easy, but a good way to approach it is to look at who is funding the research you are reading. Does the sponsor have finances at stake? Are these same findings supported by groups devoted to non-profit research? If the answer to the first question is yes, and the second is no, you may want to take their claims with a grain of salt.