Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women, where about 610,000 people die annually. This equates to 1 in every 4 deaths. Given these epidemic proportions, the research and medical communities have put forth a lot of time and funding into prevention and education of heart disease risk.
New evidence uncovered by a post-doc at UCSF implicates the sugar industry in downplaying sugar as a risk factor in heart disease and spotlighting fat and cholesterol as the primary issues. This revelation comes at a good time, where the debate over heart disease risk has increased over recent years, bringing more light and responsibility to sugar in the diet as an important risk factor for heart disease once again. Organizations such as the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization and others are finding too much sugar can indeed increase heart disease risk.
Research warning of the risk of high sugar diets on coronary heart disease (CHD) began appearing in the 1950’s. Heart disease had become a rising concern in the United States and researchers were keen to find dietary causes. Sugar and fat were discovered to have the most negative effects on the heart and were both implicated as causes of heart disease.
As a follow up, the Sugar Research Foundation began to sponsor studies in the 1960’s and 1970’s to increase suspicions of fat as the primary cause of heart disease and downplay any role a high sugar diet might have. In 1965 the Sugar Research Foundation sponsored a literature review in the New England Journal of Medicine, long before conflict of interest and funding disclosures were required, naming total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol as the main causes of heart disease. The foundation was able to lead the review’s overall direction, sponsor scientists, submit biased articles, and edit and approve of the final draft.
The success and attention of the review led to the promotion of low-fat diets and to health organizations warning against any high fat intake. Funnily enough these warnings were combined with suggestions that sugar intake can be ignored and has no ill-effects on health except as empty calories. This important shift in public opinion is now thought to be the main cause of the obesity crisis in the United States.
Sadly, this is not the only example of industry-funded research shaping public opinion and medical guidelines. As recently as last year, Coca Cola was accused of spending millions to fund research to break the link of sugary drinks and increased obesity. Instead Coca Cola blames lack of exercise as the primary cause of obesity regardless of food and drink intake. And the Associated Press published a story earlier this year that candy makers had been funding research claiming children who ate candy weighed less overall than those who didn’t.
The ability for large industries to have any say on national and international health guidelines and prevention is overwhelming. Policy makers need to be held accountable to caution against the inclusion of industry-funded research programs and ensure publicly funded and comprehensive studies are integrated into creating new policies moving forward.
, NYTimes Blog
, JAMA Network
, JAMA Network