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How the Sugar Industry Framed Fat in the 1960s

The Sugar Research Foundation paid researchers to downplay sucrose's impact on heart problems and focus on dietary fat instead, according to a new academic review. It's still having an impact.

It sounds like a Cold War whodunit dreamed up in the dessert aisle of your local grocery store.

The sugar industry in the 1960s paid leading scientists to downplay a growing body of evidence that sugar caused coronary heart disease—and to single out fat and cholesterol as the culprits instead, according to an academic review of historical documents published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” Stanton Glantz, Ph.D., an author of Monday’s JAMA paper and a professor of medicine at University of California San Francisco, told the New York Times.

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Why Does This Matter Now?

Industry-sponsored research is not a rarity. Companies often work with universities and government organizations to sponsor research, particularly in fields like engineering. It’s not uncommon in dietary science research, either. The question is whether it influences results, and there is some indication that it does: A PLOS One review of studies linking soda and weight gain found that industry-funded studies were five times more likely to find no link between drinking soda and gaining weight than studies with no reported financial conflicts of interest.

Industry influence isn't just a thing of the past, either. The Times and the JAMA authors note that the sugar industry has continued to influence the public understanding around sugar and public health, even as other scientific findings have connected soda consumption with problems like heart attack risk, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity. The Times reported in 2015 that Coca-Cola funneled millions of dollars to organizations who emphasized “energy balance” and exercise rather than sugar intake, particularly in the face of civic efforts like those in San Francisco and Philadelphia to reduce soda consumption.

So What Does It Mean for Guys Trying to Eat Healthy?

The debate around sugar continues to have an impact on what Americans consider "healthy" and "unhealthy" foods. Only this year did the FDA decide to rethink its definitions of "healthy" and "unhealthy," The Wall Street Journal reported in May, after decades of rules that considered foods like toster pastries and sugary cereals "healthy" while labeling high-fat foods like avocados and almonds as "unhealthy." (Sugar isn't an official consideration in the guidelines, which only look at fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol, and beneficial nutrients.)

For an in-depth look on the latest news, check out the full JAMA article here, the Times writeup about it here, and a statement in response to the JAMA paper from the Sugar Association. And for the average joe trying to eat healthy and avoid the bad stuff, check out our related coverage:

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