Harvard's Sugar Industry Scandal Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

There's a lot of junk science -- and corporate sponsorship -- out there.
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The sugar industry paid scientists to pad research to support its interests in the 1960s, according to a paper published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Author Cristin Kearns University of California, San Francisco uncovered damning letters in the basement of Harvard University that revealed that two of the school’s most famous nutritionists collaborated with the sugar industry to downplay sugar’s role in coronary heart disease.

The collaboration “delayed the development of a scientific consensus on sugar-heart disease for decades,” coauthor Stanton Glantz, a professor at the UCSF, told STAT.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sugar industry group involved in the tainted research didn’t have much to say about its decades-old conflict of interest.

“It is challenging for us to comment on events that allegedly occurred 60 years ago, and on documents we have never seen,” the Sugar Association told Reuters in a statement. “The Sugar Association is always seeking to further understand the role of sugar and health, but we rely on quality science and facts to drive our assertions.”

It’s unsettling to reflect on how food policy and American diets were shaped by this faulty research, and sadly, it’s part of a larger trend. Food and beverage companies and trade organizations have long influenced scientists to produce results that bolster their companies’ profits, or to stifle research that failed to support their products’ health claims. Here are four other times the food and beverage industries fooled us with faulty or slanted science:

1. Coca-Cola’s anti-obesity initiative

Perhaps the most laughable recent conflict of interest is Coca-Cola’s $1.5 million donation to start the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network, designed to convince Americans that lack of exercise, not poor eating habits, is the root of the nation’s obesity crisis. (In reality, while exercise has many health benefits, it’s not considered to be the key cause of unhealthy weight gain in kids.)

“We partner with some of the foremost experts in the fields of nutrition and physical activity,” Coca-Cola said in a 2015 statement. “It’s important to us that the researchers we work with share their own views and scientific findings, regardless of the outcome, and are transparent and open about our funding.”

New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle felt differently. “The Global Energy Balance Network is nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola,” Nestle told The New York Times. “Coca-Cola’s agenda here is very clear: Get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake.”

2. Soda-funded studies more likely to report no link between soda and obesity

Studies with a financial conflict of interest, including research by PepsiCo and the American Beverage Association, were five times more likely than independent studies to report no correlation between drinking soda and weight gain and obesity, according to the journal Plos Medicine.

Research free from conflicts of interest has reached a far different conclusion. According to a 2013 study published in Circulation, sugary drinks aren’t just bad for your waistline, they cause preventable death and disability. In fact, the Circulation researchers attributed 184,000 deaths worldwide each year to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer from sugar-sweetened beverages.

3. Candy companies research their own products

According to research backed by a trade association that represents Butterfingers, Hershey and Skittles, children who ate candy tended to be thinner than those who didn’t. Convenient, right?

The candy-funded study made the rounds in popular media before an Associated Press investigation uncovered emails indicating that candy industry ties likely influenced the study’s results.

“We’re hoping they can do something with it — it’s thin and clearly padded,” candy study researcher and Louisiana State University professor Carol O’Neil wrote to her coauthor in early 2011.

O’Neil would later tell the AP that she believed the full study to be “robust.”

4. Pom Wonderful’s bogus health claims

Pom Wonderful’s pomegranate juice packs a mean 32 grams of sugar in every 8-ounce serving, but the company has long promoted the product as a health food, and advertised it with slogans like “Cheat death” and “Drink to prostate health,” according to the New York Times.

In fact, Pom spent $34 million to fund pomegranate juice research and then spun the results to make the juice look like it prevented disease. The FTC filed a complaint against the the company for deceptive and misleading advertising in 2010.

The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that Pom would have to include a randomized, well-controlled human clinical study for any future disease benefit claims. Pom’s founders appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to take the case and upheld the lower court’s ruling this May.

We continue to stand behind our efforts to publicly convey valuable information about the health benefits of POM,” Steven Clark, a Pom spokesman, said in a statement.

Digging ourselves out of a half-century deep hole won’t be easy

This is an ongoing problem with no clear solution. Scientists need money to fund research and food companies are more than willing to provide it ― if that research yields results in line with corporate interests. As a result, Americans are swayed by industry studies and rightly confused by ever-changing nutrition guidelines.

Most frustrating of all is question the half-century-old conflict of interest raises: At this point, what research can we trust?