“This wasn’t about science. This was about marketing” - Marion Nestle
Science is great, new studies are great, and the information we glean from them can be life changing.
The facts we learn from experiments and observations can enhance our understanding and change the way we think about things like our health.
But what happens if the science isn’t so scientific? What if the studies and results we need to hear about are stifled, hidden from public view? Worse still, what if the conclusions to relevant studies are tampered with?
That would mean we’d be making harmful and potentially fatal decisions about our health, with even knowing about it. Even encouraged to do so, with the false findings being highlighted.
That’s exactly what’s been happening for the last 50 years.
PREVIOUSLY, IN THE 1960’s
Scientific studies are regularly funded by food companies - the studies need funding, and the food companies need evidence that their ingredients aren’t dangerous, so the government won’t ban them.
This does mean that companies are more likely to fund studies that will show their product in a good light, or studies that will show competitor ingredients in a bad one.
In the case of Project 259, the sugar companies took a different route. Funding a study into the effect of sugar and carbs on rat’s blood lipids, the companies learned that preliminary data suggested a link between high sugar diets and heart disease. Before further research or discussion of the conclusions could take place, the researchers found that their funding had been pulled, and so were not able to complete or publish the research.
The companies, collectively known as the International Sugar Research Foundation, cited things like “the study was going over time and over budget”, so they had no choice but to pull funding. Which may have been coincidental as it was a study that could link their products to heart disease, but that’s not the only study they had their hands in.
And pulling funding is not the only tool at their disposal.
MUDDYING THE WATERS
Traditionally, scientists must state if there are any potential conflicts of interest by any of the parties involved in the research or study, as they could potentially sway the evidence or the discussion of the conclusions.
Interestingly, or unsurprisingly for the cynic in us, another study found that research that was funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo or the American Beverage Society were 5 times more likely to find NO link between sugary drinks and weight gain, than those that had authors and funding with no conflicts of interest.
While it may have been less stringent in the 1960’s, there was still a standard to be upheld. Some influences may have been present in some studies that weren’t disclosed, but none as big as the “influences” on several Harvard researchers.
From a recent study auditing internal documents from the period, the same one that discovered the pulled funding of Project 259, it was found that the International Sugar Research Foundation had been supplying the researchers with undisclosed “additional funds”, to the tune of $6,500 (about $50,000 in today’s money). Upon further inspection, this was to persuade the scientists to shift any disturbing sugar findings over to saturated fats - blaming the fats for any cardiac related troubles, getting sugar off the hook.
Combined with the “non-existent” research connecting sugar to heart disease (because they had pulled funding before it could be published), the world would take a while to discover the great heart-health risks of a high sugar diet. It would take even longer to uncover that they’d tried to hide it all, about 50 years in fact as this was only a recent finding, and it is unclear how far they’ve held back science and how many lives this could have affected.
Unfortunately, all of the researchers and sugar executives are no longer with us, so they cannot answer for the cover up. Worryingly, one of the researchers involved, Dr. Mark Hegsted, went on to become the head of nutrition at the United States Dept. of Agriculture, where he helped draft the US dietary guidelines, so it does make you wonder what else may have been improperly studied or published.
Since the 1960’s, there’s been much more research into sugar and the effects it has on the body in high doses - none of it is good news. From diabetes to cardiac issues, too much sugar is a recipe for disaster.
However, like everything else, it’s only too much sugar that is harmful - so if you can consume it in moderation (whatever that may be to you and your individual biology) then there’s no reason we can’t enjoy a little treat every now and then.
As for science and funded research, this just shows we can never be too careful.
While I do believe it’s the best we have, it’s always best to double check and investigate the context of any scientific research that you come across. While there are many more honest scientists than dishonest ones, we’re all still human. Human error can occur, and even the results are usually only specific to the conditions they were performed under - so while a study might show great results for it’s subjects, they may be a completely different genetic/age/experience level to you, so we should not automatically expect universal results from a small proportion of the population.
If anything, it just means we need to keep gaining information, trying stuff out, seeing what happens, and find what works best for you.
Bes-Rastrollo, M; Schulze, MB; Ruiz-Canela, M; Martinez-Gonzalez, MA. 2013. Financial conflicts of interest and reporting bias regarding the association between sugar-sweetened beverges and weight gain: a systematic review of systematic reviews. PLOS Medicine. 10 (12). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3876974/ [Accessed 21/1/2018].
Kearns CE, Apollonio D, Glantz SA. 2017. Sugar industry sponsorship of germ-free rodent studies linking sucrose to hyperlipidemia and cancer: An historical analysis of internal documents. PLOS Medicine. Available from: http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2003460 [Accessed 21/1/2018].