The sugar industry blamed fat for heart disease in order to absolve itself for health problems back in the 1960s. The revelations about the sugar industry exposed in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) “takes the cake” for “the pot calling the kettle black” or just plain egregious science. JAMA published documents in their current edition pertaining to sums of money paid and correspondences with up to 5 scientists in the late 1960s who wrote articles at the behest of the Sugar industry claiming sugar consumption had no effect on heart disease.
(The article was also brought to the public’s attention by a New York Times article this week entitled “How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat.” )
The scientists that wrote the original articles in 1967 for the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine did not disclose they were given money to write the articles. With no disclosure, the sugar industry succeeded along with the faulty science of the time to derail the debate on health and diet for 50 years and sideline those like John Yudkin author of “Pure, White and Deadly” in 1972 One of these scientists who wrote a paper asked for by the sugar industry and received payment went on to be the chief nutritionist at the Department of Agriculture.
The topic is a sensitive one for me as a scientist who cares about nutrition since so many decisions that affect so many people are made based on research with very low standards ethical and other.
Scientific research is unfortunately subject to certain types of flaws which range from lack of proper training of the scientists to egregiously trying to mislead the public. Here I explain 4 reasons why nutritional research is so problematic:
4 reasons why nutritional research is so problematic
- The science itself is lacking. Nutrition studies are not as well funded as other disciplines so critical control groups or long term longitudinal observations may be lacking. Less in-depth mechanisms or reasoning are explored due to lack of resources and funding. There is no malicious intent just the articles often cannot prove the “why” only that the effect occurs.
- Scientists have done rigorous work but pander away from controversy. Titles of research articles about fat and carbs are still shaped by conformity to government guidelines. They are reported as guidelines would want them to be perceived despite the nuances of the actual data, which actually imply alternative conclusions. For example “High fat causes brain cell death” If you look at the actual data, for example you might see the mice were given a high fat/high carb diet which made them fat/obese and caused many deleterious effects. Therefore the title is misleading and the conclusions ignore what the data show. I will elaborate on this in the next post. Part of this effect is also the fault of scientific journalism, highlighted humorously by John Olivier in his sketch on Scientific studies.
- The scientists have deliberately excluded data in order to push an agenda. The Seven countries study of Ansel Keys is a perfect example in which although data was collected from 22 countries only data 7 countries were published. This data promoted the idea saturated fat was to blame for high rates of heart disease. However when the data from all countries were included, then saturated fat consumption did not predict high rates of death from heart disease.
- Scientists are influenced by companies or associations to write articles on important topics to the public (and to the companies). Companies themselves need the articles to prove safe use for the public. Though many claim disclosure rules have changed, companies still sponsor research which is obviously slanted towards them. Disclosures are very important and there is a reason disclosure exists; an example was highlighted this very week in JAMA and reported by the New York Times.
This post was not intended to discount scientific research, but rather point out how important it is to find a proper source to “translate” the science out there to the public. Scientific journalism should be written by those qualified to do so.
Also this post was meant to highlight how important nutrition is and how deplorable it is for their to be such a lack of funding and respectable science out there.
More on bad nutrition science: listen or read the works of Gary Taubes author of “Good Calories, Bad Calories.”