How the sugar industry bought out scientists for decades, and how to stop it from happening again
by Jessica Hall
According to a report just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a delegation from the Sugar Research Foundation paid off Harvard scientists to produce reports that falsely downplayed the role of sugar in coronary heart disease.
Yep. Sugar contributes to coronary artery disease, more than we have been led to believe.
Reports had linked both dietary sugar and dietary fat to heart disease as early as the mid-50s; by 1960 we knew that low-fat diets high in sugars still resulted in high cholesterol levels. So in 1964, the director of the SRF proposed that the group “embark on a major program” to dispute the data as well as any “negative attitudes toward sugar.” They found a group of Harvard nutrition scientists who would take their money, and started making plans.
Complete with a codename, Project 226 was designed to protect the interests of the sugar industry by “recapturing” the 20% of American calorie intake they expected to lose once this whole sugar-isn’t-great-for-your-heart thing percolated through into public awareness. It resulted in a two-part review published in the prestigious and influential New England Journal of Medicine, which hand-waved away huge swathes of research pointing out the risks of dietary sugar.
The authors went to absurd lengths to discount studies that didn’t tell the story the Sugar Research Foundation wanted to tell. For example, to get the results they wanted, they had to throw out all the studies done on animals, because not a single animal study supported the conclusion they wanted. But after they finished their work, they reported that epidemiological studies showed a positive association between high dietary sugar consumption and better heart disease outcomes. The review concluded that there was “no doubt” that the only way to avoid heart disease was to reduce saturated fat.
How did this get past the sanity check at NEJM? The authors were experts, respected in their fields, and they were at least consistent cherry-pickers. They also conveniently failed to report that the Sugar Research Foundation funded their “study.” NEJM didn’t start requiring authors to report conflicts of interest until 1984, and by then the sugar industry had floated comfortably on their 1964 precedent, funding study after study supporting their pro-sugar narrative “as a main prop of the industry’s defense.”
Nobody knows how many reviewers they paid to endorse the conclusions of their faux science.
Can we finally talk about industry-funded studies? I’m not saying that scientists shouldn’t be able to work for private research establishments. Obviously the money to buy the pipettes and reagents has to come from somewhere. But I am saying that there needs to be an unpleasantly bright spotlight on the financial resources enabling the scientific findings cited to support policymaking, whether political or medical. What industry would ever pay to support research that would put it out of business? Whether or not you’re in favor of industry self-regulation, no matter whether the research is funded by taxes, commercial revenue, or charitable sources, everyone deserves policies that are made based on the whole truth — not based on a callously selective interpretation of the facts that ends up lining someone’s pockets at the expense of others’ health. After how many deaths or lost person-years do the industry payoffs start being blood money?
I for one, as a bench scientist, am mightily tired of hearing about scientists taking money to produce the right conclusion. This is the kind of crap Bill Nye was railing against in his comments that the industry barons who pay off scientists to fit the results to the desired conclusions maybe should be thrown in jail. It’s prima facie fraud.
The whole point of science is that you take the measurements and then you report them. The conclusions you draw must stand up to the best-researched, best-founded, and most pedantic objections your colleagues can make. If they don’t — if your results aren’t reproducible — then you have to field another, better explanation. It’s not supposed to be done under anyone’s agenda, nor for anyone’s conclusions that they want you to reach, and shame on the people who manufacture research to support their preconceived ideas. This is exactly like what Phillip Morris and the other cigarette companies did. Shit like this is the reason people don’t trust science.
Solving the access problem
The peer-reviewed paper in which the scientists make this report is freely available from the JAMA, and that’s how it ought to be. The only solution to corruption in science is to get more critical eyes on the whole process. There needs to be an independent body of investigative experts accountable to the public, who have to submit to a zealous and hard-hitting inquiry into their financial interests, and who can serve as a sanity check for advisory boards or legislative committees.
We need a Mythbusters for medical advice: someone who isn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of the industry. Someone who can turn on the lights and force the roaches of corruption to scatter. Pay-to-win gaming isn’t fair, and people hate it, and pay-to-win science is just as bad. It’s about time to start paying the skeptics, because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
But the only way we can do the above is if the science is accessible. How much do you think a subscription to every major scientific journal would cost, even at the discounted academic rate? The EU’s Horizon 2020 directive provided hosting and access that made freely available all research funded even in part by EU money — while the authors retain the right to license, patent or commercialize their work, the peer-reviewed papers reporting their results are now free, as in libre and gratis. When they publish in Nature or wherever, they also have to publish in the European Research Council’s public database.
We should do that in the US, because hosting is cheap. Then maybe we could afford to hire people like Penn and Teller, Adam and Jamie, or Phil Plait and James Randi: people with faces we know and judgment we’ve checked, people whose stock in trade it is to root out misunderstandings and weasel words. Policy grounded in research needs to be officially subjected to the kind of person who just can’t stand it when someone is wrong on the internet. Give us some accountability and tear down this paywall.
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Originally published at www.extremetech.com.