Paying for Sweet Results

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The perils of sugar consumption are well chronicled nowadays, from books to feature films. Not so long ago, however, scientists were still unsure of the harmful effects of many things, from cigarettes to lead paint, let alone sugar in foods. The food industry has long funded nutrition research in order to better understand their products, but when the almighty dollar is involved, greed can overtake scientific responsibility.

Low and behold, in 1967, it did. Three Harvard University researchers left behind a trail of documents that confirmed their acceptance of money from the Sugar Research Foundation in exchange for favorable results—in this case, demoting sugar as a leading cause of heart disease.

A healthy skepticism over the food industry has crept up in recent years, and the study published in The Journal of American Medical Association proves that uneasiness has a well-founded history.

To better understand the study and its impact, BTRtoday spoke with Marion Nestle, nutrition expert and Paulette Goddard, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.

BTRtoday (BTR): Can you give us a brief overview of the investigation?

Marion Nestle (MN): Investigators at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) found archival documents from the Sugar Research Association, a trade association that’s the forerunner of today’s Sugar Association. And these documents showed that the Sugar Research Foundation paid the equivalent of $48,000 in today’s dollars to three researchers at Harvard to write a review article–not the relative merits of sugar and saturated fats as risk factors for heart disease.

This review was published as a two-part series in the New England Journal of Medicine, the most prestigious medical journal, and it showed that saturated fat was a much, much more important risk factor in heart disease than was sugar. It exonerated sugar, and what the documents show is that the Sugar Association wanted that result, paid for that result, and the researchers who did the reviews agreed that’s what they were going to do.

BTR: How common is this kind of occurrence?

MN: The food industry has aways funded nutrition research, but for much of it, once the research was paid for the companies didn’t have anything to do with the design, conduct, interpretation, or presentation of the research. What was so shocking about this was how deliberately it was set up. Usually it’s much more subtle than that, and much more complicated. The industry finds researchers who are willing to do this kind of research, but there isn’t any direct bribery involved. What was so shocking about this particular incident and the documentation is that it’s bribery. There’s nothing wrong with industry funding of research, but bribing investigators to come out with a particular result completely undermines what science is supposed to be about.

BTR: How much of the misinformation and whatever lack of understanding surrounds nutrition today are due to studies conducted under nefarious conditions such as this?

MN: I don’t think we can answer that question. Today, most medical and nutrition journals require authors to disclose their financial contacts and arrangements with sponsoring corporations. That’s relatively new, that didn’t really start until the 1990s, and this paper that we’re talking about was in 1967. But there’s a fair amount of research that shows authors tend not to fully disclose their financial ties with industry, just as these authors did. These authors disclosed that they got funding from several sources, and if you knew who those sources were, you would know they were food industry-funded sources. But they did not mention the Sugar Research Foundation.

BTR: Is this type of pay-for-results scheme still possible nowadays? Are there more rules or guidelines in place to prevent it?

MN: We don’t really have any idea because the documentation is so difficult to get a hold of. But about a year ago, the New York Times did a front page story on how Coca-Cola funded a group called the Global Energy Balance Network that was organized to argue that physical activity is much more important than what you eat or drink in obesity. The writer of the article had email between Coca-Cola executives and these researchers that showed that Coca-Cola was intimately involved in the design, conduct, and implementation of the research, and that it was a collaboration.

So these things do happen, it’s just that they’re very difficult to document. And what’s so impressive about this study that has just come out is that they have this incredible level of documentation from two sources. They had the research documents from the Sugar Research Foundation, and they had documents from one of the investigators. All of the principals in this story have died, so you can’t interview them and ask them what all of this meant, but they left documents behind that don’t look good.