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Sugar Industry Manipulated Research About Health Effects, Study Finds


Now for a story about a secret deal decades ago that has helped shape the way we think about food. It was revealed in a study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine. It's a journal affiliated with the American Medical Association. And the study is based on research by Cristin Kearns. She's a fellow at UC San Francisco, and she's a dentist. And at a conference a few years back, Kearns went to see a speaker talk about dentistry and diabetes.

CRISTIN KEARNS: And she handed out literature for dentists to use to counsel diabetic patients. And it didn't mention anything about restricting sugar consumption to manage diabetes, which I found to be a bit strange.

MCEVERS: So she started Googling, and one thing led to another. And eventually, in a library in Colorado, Kearns came across the records of a sugar company that went out of business in the 1970s. In the very first folder she opened, she found a confidential memo by the Sugar Association.

KEARNS: And what I happened upon was the public relations campaign that the industry launched to influence the Food and Drug Administration's review of the safety of sucrose back in 1976.

MCEVERS: And she found more than that. In the middle of the 20th century, scientists had begun questioning whether sugar was related to heart disease. And that didn't sit well with the sugar industry, so, Kearns found, the Sugar Association paid the equivalent of $50,000 to three Harvard scientists to review the existing research.

KEARNS: The 1960s was really critical for the diet and heart disease debate. There really were two sides of the story. One, evidence was linking sugar to heart disease, while on the other evidence was linking saturated fat to heart disease. Some people were saying that both were a problem. The sugar industry took that opportunity very early on to enlist these Harvard scientists and write a very influential review that was published in The New England Journal of Medicine that critiqued the evidence linking sucrose to coronary heart disease that served to shift us off of that path.

MCEVERS: Right. And so the attention turned to fat and turned away from sugar.

KEARNS: That's right.

MCEVERS: And we should say that the Sugar Association has responded to your study. It says that this 1967 review was published at a time when medical journals didn't typically require researchers to disclose their funding sources. They also say the industry should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities. Do you think that's an adequate response?

KEARNS: Well, yeah, I think it's true that they absolutely should have been more transparent. But I think that there's a lot more going on there. This was just one study. This was the first study in the sugar industry's heart disease research program. I believe that they had funded a considerable amount more related to this debate, and so I think there's more to learn about their influence.

MCEVERS: You know, this research of yours, what - your findings really bring to mind similar stories about the tobacco industry or the oil industry trying to influence research. Are there any connections there?

KEARNS: Interestingly, when I first started off I found that the scientific director of the Sugar Research Foundation, which got started in 1943, actually went on to work for the tobacco industry in 1954, for the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. So it could be that the tobacco industry actually learned from the sugar industry.

MCEVERS: Wow. So what can be done to keep this from happening again?

KEARNS: Well, certainly having strong conflict-of-interest policies in our scientific journals is really important, as well as looking at industry interactions with their expert advisory committees, ensuring that industry-sponsored studies aren't considered in that body of evidence when experts are making conclusions about dietary guidelines, but, as well, getting the information out to the public to be critical of industry-funded studies that they hear about in the media.

MCEVERS: Cristin Kearns, thank you so much.

KEARNS: Thank you for having me.

MCEVERS: Cristin Kearns is a dentist and a fellow at the University of California, San Francisco. Her study about the sugar industry's influence on research back in the 1960s was published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.