A 50-Year-Old Case of Industry-Sponsored Nutrition Research a “Smoking Gun,” Writes Marion Nestle

Using archival documents, a new report published online today by JAMA Internal Medicine examines the sugar industry’s role in heart disease research. The study suggests that the sugar industry sponsored research to influence the scientific debate to cast doubt on the hazards of sugar and to promote dietary fat as the culprit in heart disease.

The report – authored by Cristin E. Kearns, Laura A. Schmidt, and Stanton A. Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco – examined internal documents from the Sugar Research Foundation (which later evolved into the Sugar Association). The Sugar Research Foundation started doing research on coronary heart disease research in 1965; its first project was a literature review published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967. The review focused on fat and cholesterol as the dietary causes of coronary heart disease, downplaying sugar consumption as a risk factor.

While the Sugar Research Foundation’s funding and role were not disclosed, internal documents reveal that the organization set the review’s objective, contributed articles to be included, and received drafts – a “smoking gun” linking the industry’s influence over the research it paid for, writes Marion Nestle in a related commentary, also published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“This 50-year-old incident may seem like ancient history, but it is quite relevant, not least because it answers some questions germane to our current era. Is it really true that food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research in their favor? Yes, it is, and the practice continues,” writes Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU Steinhardt.

“Industry-sponsored nutrition research, like that of research sponsored by the tobacco, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries, almost invariably produces results that confirm the benefits or lack of harm of the sponsor’s products, even when independently sponsored research comes to opposite conclusions,” Nestle adds.

Nestle says the report should serve as a warning to policymakers, researchers, clinicians, and journalists in carefully interpreting studies funded by food companies with vested interests in the results, and highlights the need to find better ways to fund studies and to prevent and disclose conflicts of interest.