Study Details Sugar Industry Attempt to Shape Science | NBC Bay Area
National & International News
The day’s top national and international news

Study Details Sugar Industry Attempt to Shape Science

In 1964, the group now known as the Sugar Association internally discussed a campaign to address "negative attitudes toward sugar"

    processing...

    NEWSLETTERS

    Getty Images
    While scientists are still working to understand links between diet and heart disease, concern has shifted in recent years to sugar and carbohydrates, and away from fat.

    The sugar industry began funding research that cast doubt on sugar's role in heart disease — in part by pointing the finger at fat — as early as the 1960s, according to an analysis of newly uncovered documents.

    The analysis published Monday is based on correspondence between a sugar trade group and researchers at Harvard University, and is the latest example showing how food and beverage makers attempt to shape public understanding of nutrition.

    In 1964, the group now known as the Sugar Association internally discussed a campaign to address "negative attitudes toward sugar" after studies began emerging linking sugar with heart disease, according to documents dug up from public archives. The following year the group approved "Project 226," which entailed paying Harvard researchers today's equivalent of $48,900 for an article reviewing the scientific literature, supplying materials they wanted reviewed, and receiving drafts of the article.

    The resulting article published in 1967 concluded there was "no doubt" that reducing cholesterol and saturated fat was the only dietary intervention needed to prevent heart disease. The researchers overstated the consistency of the literature on fat and cholesterol, while downplaying studies on sugar, according to the analysis.

    Airlines Reading, Responding to Social Media Rants

    [NATL-DFW] Airlines Reading, Responding to Social Media Rants
    A new study says airlines are reading posts made by customers complaining over delayed or canceled flights and poor service, and are responding to those messages. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines has a team tracking Twitter, Facebook and other online sites 24 hours a day. When a customer vents about a problem, a representative reaches out to them. "The approach is really how can we help, wait a minute we hate to hear that.... so what is going on, give us some information and let's see what we can do to straighten this out," said Lisa Goode, with Southwest Airlines. Social media teams help airlines by rebooking customers or by helping keep them more calm by relaying information when problems crop up. (Published Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016)

    "Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind and we look forward to its appearance in print," wrote an employee of the sugar industry group to one of the authors.

    The sugar industry's funding and role were not disclosed when the article was published by the New England Journal of Medicine. The journal, which did not require such disclosures at the time, began requesting author disclosures in 1984.

    In an editorial published Monday that accompanied the sugar industry analysis, New York University professor of nutrition Marion Nestle noted that for decades following the study, scientists and health officials focused on reducing saturated fat, not sugar, to prevent heart disease.

    While scientists are still working to understand links between diet and heart disease, concern has shifted in recent years to sugar and carbohydrates, and away from fat, Nestle said.

    Mark Schiefelbein/AP

    A committee advising the federal government on dietary guidelines says the available evidence shows "no appreciable relationship" between the dietary cholesterol and heart disease, although it still recommended limiting saturated fats.

    The American Heart Association cites a study published in 2014 in saying that too much added sugar can increase risk of heart disease, though the authors of that study says the biological reasons for the link are not completely understood.

    The findings published Monday are part of an ongoing project by a former dentist, Cristin Kearns, to reveal the sugar industry's decades-long efforts to counter science linking sugar with negative health effects, including diabetes. The latest work, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, is based primarily on 31 pages of correspondence between the sugar group and one of the Harvard researchers who authored the review. 

    In a statement, the Sugar Association said it "should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities," but that funding disclosures were not the norm when the review was published. The group also questioned Kearns' "continued attempts to reframe historical occurrences" to play into the current public sentiment against sugar.

    Summer Camps For Adults Throughout the Year

    [NATL] Summer Camps For Adults Throughout the Year
    Fall may have officially arrived, but the summer camp experience is still going for some. More and more adults are reliving the summer camp experience during fall and spring. More than a million adults a year are indulging in camps according to the American Camp Association. (Published Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016)

    The Sugar Association said it was a "disservice" that industry-funded research in general is considered "tainted."

    Companies including Coca-Cola Co. and Kellogg Co. as well as groups for agricultural products like beef and blueberries regularly fund studies that become a part of scientific literature, are cited by other researchers, and are touted in press releases.

    Companies say they adhere to scientific standards, and many researchers feel that industry funding is critical to advancing science given the growing competition for government funds. But critics say such studies are often thinly veiled marketing that undermine efforts to improve public health.

    "Food company sponsorship, whether or not intentionally manipulative, undermines public trust in nutrition science, contributes to public confusion about what to eat," wrote Nestle, a longtime critic of industry funding of science. 

    Brewer Wants to Sell Weed-Infused Beer Nationwide

    [NATL-DFW] Brewer Wants to Sell Weed-Infused Beer Nationwide
    A Colorado based brewery plans to market their cannabis-infused beer across the country. One question: does it get you high? (Published Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016)

    The authors of the analysis note they were unable to interview key actors quoted in the documents because they are no longer alive. They also note there is no direct evidence the sugar industry wrote or changed the manuscript, that the documents provide a limited window into the activities of the sugar industry group and that the roles of other industries and nutrition leaders in shaping the discussion about heart disease were not studied.

    Nevertheless, they say the documents underscore why policy makers should consider giving less weight to industry-funded studies. Although funding disclosures are now common practice in the scientific community, the role sponsors play behind the scenes is still not always clear.

    In June, the Associated Press reported on a study funded by the candy industry's trade group that found children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who don't. The National Confectioners Association, which touted the findings in a press release, provided feedback to the authors on a draft even though a disclosure said it had no role in the paper. The association said its suggestions didn't alter the findings.

    In November, the AP also reported on emails showing Coca-Cola was instrumental in creating a nonprofit that said its mission was to fight obesity, even though the group publicly said the soda maker had "no input" into its activities. A document circulated at Coke said the group would counter the "shrill rhetoric" of "public health extremists."

    Police Officers Abuse Confidential Databases, AP Finds

    [NATL] Police Officers Abuse Confidential Databases, AP Finds
    Scores of police officers abuse confidential law enforcement databases to access personal information about ex-girlfriends, business associates, politicians and others for reasons that have nothing to do with police work. (Published Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016)

    Coca-Cola subsequently conceded that it had not been transparent, and the group later disbanded.