The history behind the sugar industry in America is comprised of all the components of a good scandal: politics, lies, cover-ups, and money. This scandal can only be described as one of the biggest and best cover-ups in the food industry.
Those born before 1990 have not only heard but probably still believe fat is the leading culprit of America’s obesity crisis. Hell, the word “fat” alone draws that conclusion pretty readily. However, research over the last ten years has not only debunked the myth fat causes weight gain, but has proven fat is a vital and a healthy aspect of one’s diet. In fact, fatty foods can actually help curb hunger cravings, further dispelling previously held notions that fat is the enemy.
So if fat isn’t responsible for America’s growing obesity problem, what is? While I hate to point a finger, as there are many contributing factors such as genetics, socio-economics, and education, research over the last 10+ years has overwhelmingly shown that sugar is directly linked to excessive weight-gain along with a host of other health problems like hypertension and diabetes. This research has been known by both the food and health industry for decades.
So why the push to villainize fat? Simply put. Money.
In the 1950’s, private sectors who were invested in the Sugar Industry wanted to find a way to increase their sale revenue. Independent research during that time suggested a link between sucrose (simple carbohydrates) and weight. They realized, in order to push sugar and carbohydrates on America, they would have to find another macronutrient to blame. Thus, the birth of the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF). This foundation was funded by special interest groups who hired and paid their own scientists to prove sugar had no discernable impact on the human body. In fact, on the contrary, the scientific journals of the time correlated low-fat diets with both losing weight and sustaining health.
In the 1960’s, independent research showed evidence sugar was the key player in numerous diseases. A Harvard study in 1967 published an article linking simple carbohydrates with obesity. The SRF directly edited this manuscript. According to the researchers, there is only “circumstantial” evidence that the interests of the sugar lobby shaped the conclusions of the review. In the years following, the SRF spent thousands to manipulate research by funding studies with their own scientists.
In response, Mr. Hickson, Vice-president of the SPR, pushed to change data. One scientist hired by the organization replied: “We’re well aware and will cover this as well as we can.”
The project wound up taking longer than anticipated (primarily because it was so difficult to rebuttal growing evidence on the contrary), but it was finally published in 1967 and had a surprisingly influential and revolutionary effect on the way we look at food.
The Sugar Association, which has since replaced the SPR, acknowledges that the former association exercised transparency and falsehood in their finding, but will not acknowledge the impact sugar and carbohydrates has on the current health crisis in America.
The Harvard findings which were influenced by the SPR are now five decades old, but as Marion Nestle notes in JAMA Internal Medicine:
“Is it really true that food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research in their favor? Yes, it is, and the practice continues. In 2015, the New York Times obtained emails revealing Coca-Cola’s cozy relationships with sponsored researchers who were conducting studies aimed at minimizing the effects of sugary drinks on obesity. Even more recently, the Associated Press obtained emails showing how a candy trade association funded and influenced studies to show that children who eat sweets have healthier body weights than those who do not.”
It will take years to reshape our understanding of food. Research should always be questioned, not because all of it is untrue, but because everyone has stock in food and medicine. It is a business, just like anything else and as a business, lobbyists, special interest groups, money, and politicians will always distort reality to promote whatever they think will make them money.