Just as bad as the decades-long deception over the risks of tobacco is this latest blow to the public’s trust: News that in the 1960s Harvard researchers were paid by the sugar industry to create a study that would downplay the effects of sugar on heart disease, pointing instead to fat and cholesterol.
Little wonder that Americans are confused about how to maintain their own nutritional health when the advice given them is based on flawed and even outright deceptive research. And this wasn’t just any study. The scientists who sold out their principles for the equivalent of about $6,500 apiece in 1967 went on to hugely influential roles. One became head of nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he was able to shape what eventually became the federal government’s dietary guidelines. Another became head of Harvard’s nutrition department.
Junk science has been on the rise for years, in part because government funding of nutrition research has stagnated. The National Institutes of Health devotes about 5 percent of its spending to biomedical nutrition research and training — between $1.4 billion and $1.5 billion annually — a figure that has barely budged in five years.
At the same time, industry groups have been aggressive about taking a page from the tobacco industry and recruiting experts to promote their viewpoints to uncritical consumers.
In the case of the Harvard study and others that followed, the consequences were serious. Consumers were deluded into thinking that fat was the main culprit in heart disease, with sugar relegated to secondary status, a source of “empty calories,” but not necessarily heart disease. To get rid of dreaded fat, producers trotted out scores of new products that used — of course — sugar to replace lost flavor and texture. Decades later, more Americans are obese than ever and a seemingly healthful product like tomato-based spaghetti sauce boasts of being low-fat but can carry as much sugar per serving as a candy bar.
More recently, Coca-Cola spread millions of dollars across colleges and universities, enlisting experts to downplay the link between sugary soft drinks and obesity. In exchange for donations, one university was prepared to launch a study that would focus blame for obesity on lack of exercise. After the story broke, the university returned the money. One researcher recently tracked industry-funded nutrition studies and found that 90 percent of them had results in line with the funder.
Americans need better, more reliable sources of information vital to their health. The news media can do its part by being scrupulously critical of junk science studies promoted by innocent-sounding front groups with questionable methodology. The government and nonprofit foundations should do more to fund scientifically sound research. Above all, colleges, universities and health centers should stop trading their good names for research that carries a hidden agenda.
That’s the way to rebuild public trust.