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Fifty years after the fact, papers reveal that Harvard University researchers were bribed with $6500 by the sugar industry to say that fat caused heart disease. The bribes are thousands of times larger now.

New documents that only recently came to light reveal that a famous Harvard University health researcher took $6,500 in 1965 (the equivalent of about $50,000 today) to slant a major article to suggest that saturated fat was dangerous but sugar was safe for the heart.The research that the Sugar Research Foundation, now known as the Sugar Association, bought and paid for appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967.

Misinformation About the Roles of Dietary Fat and Sugar in Heart Disease

Entitled "Dietary fats, carbohydrates and atherosclerotic vascular disease," the article was co-authored by nutrition researcher Mark Hegsted. The article, which appeared in two parts, tracked the relationship between fat consumption (actually the amount of fat available in the food supply, not the amount actually consumed) and heart disease in 14 countries. The article correctly pointed out that the United States had the world's highest consumption of dietary fat and the world's highest rate of heart disease, Australia, New Zealand, and Finland slightly lower consumption of fat and slightly lower rates of heart disease, and Japan had very low consumption of fat and very low rates of heart disease.

What the article left out was that in Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, and Finns received nearly the same number of calories from sugar as they did from fat, and the data could as easily have shown that sugar causes heart disease.

Hegsted, who died in 2009 at the age of 95, pioneered the "Hegsted Equation," which predicted that:

  • saturated fat from meat and eggs would increase the risk of heart disease,
  • monosaturated fat from olives and avocados would have no effect on heart disease, and
  • polyunsaturated fat from sources like nuts and seeds would lower heart disease.

His scientific papers were heavily publicized in the middle of the 1960's to make him something of a rock star of nutrition.

Hegsted became an editor of nutritional research publications, allowing him to reject papers that would contradict the claims of the sugar industry. Since only pro-sugar research could get published, the US Congress came to support the idea of lowering dietary fat to reduce heart disease for the whole country.

Hegsted went on to become the US Department of Agriculture official who gave us the nutritional pyramid.

Encouraging everyone to eat fruit and grain products, the nutritional pyramid caused many people to follow high-carbohydrate, high-sugar diets that are now known to fuel obesity as well as heart disease.

He wasn't completely honest in his research, but that did not stop him from having huge influence on the diets of hundreds of millions of Americans.

Derailed the Discussion of the Role of Sugar in Heart Disease for 50 Years

This article derailed discussions of sugar's role in heart disease for 50 years, says Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and author of the paper exposing the bribes, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September 2016. Glantz points out: 

" Only in the last 10 to 15 years have medical journals begun to publish research that shows the link between excessive sugar consumption and heart disease."

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, wrote an editorial to confirm that the documents provided “compelling evidence” that the sugar industry had initiated research

“expressly to exonerate sugar as a major risk factor for coronary heart disease."

For a $6500 payment, the Sugar Association assured billions in sales would not be jeopardized by letting the public know about the dangers of excessive consumption of sugar-laden foods.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Kearns CE, Schmidt LA, Glantz SA. Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Sep 12. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.5394. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 27617709.
  • Nestle, M. Food Industry Funding of Nutrition Research: The Relevance of History for Current Debates. JAMA Intern Med. Published online September 12, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.5400.
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