Sugar and Heart Disease – The Controversy

“The sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead, newly released historical documents show.” The New York Times quotes the article from JAMA Internal Medicine by Stanton Glantz, PhD at UCSF. Dr. Glantz is best known for his book The Cigarette Papers. This book detailed how he received a sheaf of documents detailing the insider attempt by the tobacco industry to obscure the science linking tobacco to cancer and heart disease. It is a great book and rewards reading.

Dr. Cristin Kearns, a dentist with an interest in the sugar industry, found the publicly available documents in Boston and gave them to Dr. Glantz. The documents showed that the sugar industry did some of the same things that the tobacco industry did around that time. They paid researchers to publish work that made their product look good.

Interesting fact … Dr. Cristin Kearns herself is paid by a foundation with an agenda. Yes, that’s right. She is guilty of exactly what she is accusing the researchers from Harvard of doing. She works for a group called SugarScience. They are funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. This foundation, originating with money made from Enron, is also funding Gary Taubes’ (the Atkins diet supporter) Nutrition Science Initiative. They also fund The Nutrition Coalition, which has paid medical journals to publish articles criticizing the science that clearly shows the dangers of saturated fat and is also funded by National Cattleman’s Beef Association. The Laura and John Arnold foundation is definitely paying money to spread the message about low carbohydrate diets.

Apparently nobody saw fit to divulge this fact to the journal that published the article. The article states there are no conflicts of interest. Curious.

Paying for research is standard practice in the industry. It’s done by almost all food manufacturers. The beef industry uses tax dollars to fund their research. So does the dairy industry. So does the Egg Nutrition Center. Some industries do it without tax dollars, like the nut and dried fruit producers, the California olive oil industry, the California raisin industry and even the kiwifruit industry. One of the most egregious recent examples was a study that tried to show that chocolate milk helped prevent concussions.

The goal for industry is clear. They want you to think that whatever they are selling you is good for you. When they can’t convince you of that, they want you to think that there is a lot of controversy over their product and both sides stack up equally and you’re no expert. So you will throw up your hands and just do whatever you were going to do anyway. This was seen clearly in the sixties and seventies with the tobacco industry.

The sugar industry is no different and we hardly need to go back to 1967 to find horrible industry-funded research.

The question is a scientific one though. I would want to know if dietary sugar is the primary cause of heart disease or saturated fat is. Dr. David Katz explains the problems with saturated fat conclusively here.

The issues regarding sugar and saturated fat are complicated and hard to sort out with epidemiology because most of the countries that eat lots of sugar also eat lots of fat. This is shown best with a graph from the original article in the New England Journal of Medicine that Drs. Glantz and Kearns spend most of their article analyzing.

The dark dots are saturated fat consumption, the light dots are sugar consumption. You can see that they both track pretty well with overall death rates from heart disease.

Yet when you read the actual articles that the news reports are about, you find pretty measured statements that seem just as accurate today as they would have seemed in the 1960s when first published.

Here’s their final statement:

Limited evidence from studies on man as well as from researches on laboratory animals show a slightly significant role for the kind and amount of dietary carbohydrate in the regulation of serum lipids. These effects are somewhat more pronounced when diets low in fat are consumed. Since diets low in fat and high in sugar are rarely taken, we conclude that the practical significance of differences in dietary carbohydrate is minimal in comparison to those related to dietary fat and cholesterol.

Translated out of Scientese, this means that eating a very fatty diet will raise your cholesterol so high that sugar’s effect will be very small, but when you are eating a low fat diet, sugar will still raise your cholesterol. But since very few people eat sugary treats that aren’t also fatty (candy bars, donuts, milkshakes, ice cream, Danish pastries, cookies, brownies, pop tarts, etc.), there isn’t much point in telling people to only eat less sugar.

I agree.

Sugar isn’t a health food and it won’t make you healthy, and it can keep your cholesterol higher than it would be if you didn’t eat it.

But fats, more specifically saturated fats, are the primary cause of heart disease. Industry didn’t pay me anything to say any of that.

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