Sugar has detrimental effects on our health, and not just because sweet foods tend to have a lot of kilojoules. Plenty of research has shown that the same kilojoules of sugar versus other foods do very different things to our bodies. And new research shows how the sugar industry has tried to hide those findings.
Over the last 50 or so years, the conventional wisdom has been that dietary fat is a main contributor to heart disease. These assumptions are finally being challenged – it isn’t as if the cholesterol you eat from eggs or a steak zips from your stomach into your arteries. And research in the last decade has started solidifying the link between sugar consumption and heart disease.
We’re also seeing new information about how the “wisdom” linking fat to heart disease ever became conventional at all. In the 1960s, scientists researching the causes of heart disease were eyeing sugar as a culprit, and according to a new paper, sugar industry-funded research obscured and buried that connection.
One of the researchers behind the new study, Stanton Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco, told NPR, “What the sugar industry successively did is they shifted all of the blame onto fats.”
Glantz and his collaborators’ research, published in the journal PLOS Biology, looks at how the Sugar Research Foundation, tied to the American sugar trade association, funded its own research into the detrimental health effects of sugar, but pulled funding just before the research could be completed and published, because things were not looking good.
In 1967, the Sugar Research Foundation secretly funded a review article that discounted research that was pointing to a link between sugar consumption and heart disease. That article was published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Then, the SRF embarked on its own study, using rats to compare the health effects of consuming sucrose (sugar) versus starch or a rat’s normal diet.
That study went on for three years. While funding to finish the study was denied – just 12 weeks from completion – the preliminary results showed that rats on a high-sugar diet had higher triglyceride levels in their blood than other rats. In people, high triglycerides are a risk factor for heart attack and stroke. The study also showed a connection between sugar consumption and beta-glucuronidase, an enzyme associated with bladder cancer in humans.
These are rat studies, and risk factors rather than the presence of any disease, so this doesn’t mean that sugar causes heart disease and bladder cancer. The discontinued research wouldn’t have been a smoking gun, but it would have been part of a growing body of evidence that sugar is more than “empty calories”.
Glantz’s study is part of its own growing body of research, too – one that shows how industry-funded science tends to find results that benefit the industry (and that research that would harm the industry is often aborted or left unpublished), whether it’s cigarettes, pharmaceuticals or climate change.
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