Researchers that Blamed Saturated Fat as Cause of Heart Disease – paid by sugar industry

A year ago, I found out from a fellow Dietitian that a recently published article in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that the sugar industry had secretly funded a group of renowned Harvard researchers to write an influential series of articles which downplayed, discredited or outright ignored research known at the time, and which demonstrated that sugar was a contributor to heart disease.

I read the article and was stunned at its significance.

As I am in the midst of a new series of articles on the role of saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat in health and disease, I felt it’s important that people understand the sugar’s industry involvement in potentially skewing of the scientific evidence at the very time that the original 1977 low-fat high carb Dietary Guidelines were being formulated and so I researched further and wrote this article.

Two of the prominent Harvard researchers that were paid by the sugar industry and who wrote articles dismissing that sugar was a significant contributor to heart disease and implicating saturated fat as the cause were the late Dr. Fredrick Stare, chair of Harvard’s School of Public Health Nutrition Department and the late Dr. D. Mark Hegsted, a professor in the same department [2].

POST PUBLICATION NOTE (March 12 2018): Dr. Hegsted, one of the 3 Harvard researchers paid by the sugar industry to write these review articles was directly involved in developing and editing the 1977 US Dietary Guidelines [6].

A commentary in the Journal of Accountability in Research [4] summarized the significance of those articles as follows;

“Researchers were paid handsomely to critique studies that found sucrose [sugar] makes an inordinate contribution to fat metabolism and heart disease leaving only the theory that  dietary fat and cholesterol was the primary contributor.”

In the mid-1960’s, the Sugar Research Foundation (which is the predecessor to the Sugar Association) wanted to counter research that had been published at the time which suggested that sugar was a more important cause of atherosclerosis than dietary fat. The Sugar Research Foundation invited Dr. Stare of Harvard’s School of Public Health Nutrition Department to join its scientific advisory board and then approved $6,500 in funds ($50,000 in 2016 dollars) to support a review article that would respond to the research showing the danger of sucrose[2].  Letters exchanged between the parties were brought to light in the November 2016 article published by Kearns et al [1] maintained that the Sugar Research Foundation tasked the researchers with preparing “a review article of the several papers which find some special metabolic peril in sucrose [sugar] and, in particular, fructose [3].”

This would seem akin to the tobacco industry having secretly funded articles demonstrating that something other than smoking was responsible for lung cancer.

In August 1967 the New England Journal of Medicine published the first review article written by Drs. Stare, Hegsted and McGandy titled “Dietary fats, carbohydrates and atherosclerotic vascular disease”[3] which stated;

“Since diets low in fat and high in sugar are rarely taken, we conclude that the practical significance of differences in dietary carbohydrate is minimal in comparison to those related to dietary fat and cholesterol

The report concluded;

“the major evidence today suggests only one avenue by which diet may affect the development and progression of atherosclerosis. This is by influencing the levels of serum lipids [fats], especially serum cholesterol.”

The Harvard researchers went on to say;

“there can be no doubt that levels of serum cholesterol can be substantially modified by manipulation of the fat and cholesterol of the diet.”

The Harvard researchers concluded;

“on the basis of epidemiological, experimental and clinical evidence, that a lowering of the proportion of dietary saturated fatty acids, increasing the proportion of polyunsaturated acids and reducing the level of dietary cholesterol are the dietary changes most likely to be of benefit.”

Stare, Hegsted and McGandy did not disclose that they were paid by the Sugar Research Foundation for the two-part review [4].

In response to Kearns et al article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in November 2016 [1], the Sugar Association responded [5] by stating that it;

should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities, however, when the studies in question were published funding disclosures and transparency standards were not the norm they are today.” [5]

Some final thoughts…

The reviews written by these influential Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Department researchers and paid for by the sugar industry have the appearance of being deliberate manipulation of the perception of the scientific evidence known at the time. 

Whether deliberate or inadvertent, the fact that such sponsorship occurred at the very period in time when the Dietary Guidelines were under revision to emphasize that saturated fat intake must be reduced and carbohydrate consumption must be increased cannot be understated a move which certainly benefited the sugar industry.

POST PUBLICATION NOTE (March 12 2018): Discovered after publication of this article, one of the three Harvard researchers funded by the sugar industry, Dr. D.M Hegsted was one of the scientists that worked on the 1977 US Dietary Guidelines[6].

How has this turned out for us?

For the last 40 years, Americans and Canadians have diligently eaten more carbohydrate (including foods containing sucrose and fructose) and more polyunsaturated fats (especially soybean and canola oil) just as the Harvard researchers paid for by the sugar industry recommended and to what end

Obesity rates have gone from ~10% in the 1950’s and 60’s in both countries to 26.7% in Canada (2015) and ~34% in the US (2017) and Diabetes and high blood pressure (hypertension) rates have risen exponentially.

What’s going on?

Could it be that the shift to a diet abundant in omega-6 polyunsaturated fat (such as soyabean oil) and which supplies 45-65% of daily calories as carbohydrate created the ‘perfect storm‘ which inadvertently fueled the obesity and health epidemic we now see?

This will be the subject of future articles.

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Author: BBDN

Joy Y Kiddie MSc., RD - I'm a Registered Dietitian in private practice in British Columbia, Canada that provides services in-person in my Coquitlam office, as well as by Distance Consultation (using Skype / telephone).