“Corporations are legally required to maximize shareholder profits and therefore have to oppose public health policies that could threaten profits.” That’s just how the system is set up. “Unequivocal, longstanding evidence shows that, to achieve this, diverse industries with products that can damage health have worked systematically to subvert the scientific process.” As I discuss in my video Flashback Friday: Sugar Industry Attemtps to Manipulate the Science, internal documents showed that Big Sugar was concerned that health food “faddists” were becoming an active menace to its industry. Sugar was under attack, “and many of the poor unfortunate public swallow the misinformation broadcast by the propagandists.” For example, in his book Pure, White and Deadly, John Yudkin says, “All of the propaganda, inspired or otherwise, [says]…that sugar is a non-essential food.” How dare anyone say sugar is a non-essential food! Next, they’ll be saying sugar isn’t really food at all. The sugar industry’s line? “Sugar is a cheap, safe food,” and that came from the founder and chair of Harvard’s nutrition department, Fredrick Stare, long known as “Harvard’s sugar-pushing nutritionist.”
Not only did the sugar industry try to influence the direction of dental research, but it did the same with research on heart disease, paying Stare and colleagues to write a review that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967 to help downplay any risk from sugar. Now, to be fair, that was five years before we even realized triglycerides were also an independent risk factor beyond just cholesterol. The main reason that attention stayed focused on saturated fat is not because of the might of the sugar industry. There just weren’t as much data to support sugar’s role in heart disease. In fact, the even more powerful meat and dairy industries loved the anti-sugar message. Who do you think sponsored Yudkin? In fact, in the acknowledgements at the beginning of Pure, White and Deadly, he thanks all of the food and drug companies that had provided him with such constant generous support. Who paid for Yudkin’s speaking tour? The egg industry, of course, to try to take some heat off of cholesterol.
Hegsted, one of the co-authors of the funded review, wasn’t exactly an industry cheerleader. He recommended people cut down on all of the risky stuff and eat “less meat, less fat, less saturated fat, less cholesterol, less sugar, less salt, and more fruits and vegetables, unsaturated fat and cereal products—especially whole grain cereals.” But, it wasn’t the sugar industry that got him fired for speaking truth to power—it was the beef industry.
The sugar industry was able to conceal its funding because the New England Journal of Medicine didn’t require disclosure of conflicts of interest until 17 years later. These muckraking researchers suggest that “policymaking committees should consider giving less weight to food industry–funded studies,” but why is the food industry funding studies at all? When it comes to the corporate manipulation of research, “ultimately, conflicts of interest need to be eliminated, not just managed” and disclosed.
“Change will not occur until public health researchers refuse to take money from the ultraprocessed food industry.” Period. “It worked for tobacco,” and many prestigious medical and public health institutions have instituted bans on tobacco-industry funding.
Can’t scientists remain objective and impartial even in the face of all of that cash, though? Apparently not, as industry-funded research has been shown to be up to 88 times more likely to produce outcomes favorable to funders. What a surprise. Do we think corporations are in the business of just handing out free money?
The classic example is the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, which accepted a million-dollar grant from Coca-Cola. Before the grant, its official position was that “frequent consumption of sugars in any beverage can be a significant factor in the…initiation and progression of dental caries [cavities].” After receiving the grant, it changed to: “Scientific evidence is certainly not clear on the exact role that soft drinks play in terms of children’s oral disease.” As Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Integrity in Science Project put it, “What a difference a million dollars makes!”