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STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: PS1.A

CCSS: Speaking and Listening Standards: 4

TEKS: 6.3, 7.3A, 8.3D, B.3D

Sugarcoating the Truth

How the sugar industry shaped your diet by funding bad science

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: How can scientific studies influence people’s attitudes and behaviors?

Most people are quick to blame Americans’ expanding waistlines on sugar. After all, soda, candy, and other sugary foods are high in calories yet low in nutrients. But until recently, most people didn’t realize that consuming sugary foods and drinks may also increase your risk for heart disease. For decades, fat—not sugar—has been blamed for this particular health problem. 

The reason for this misunderstanding? Researchers recently uncovered that the sugar industry paid scientists to play up the dangers of fat in relation to heart disease while keeping sugar in the clear. The misleading research, published in 1967, contributed to shaping dietary recommendations for years to come. 

Most people know sugar can cause weight gain. Soda, candy, and other sugary foods have a lot of calories and few nutrients. But until recently, most people didn’t realize that sugary foods and drinks may also increase your risk for heart disease. For decades, fat—not sugar—has been blamed for this problem. 

The reason? Researchers recently uncovered the truth. The sugar industry paid scientists to play up the dangers of fat as a link to heart disease. Meanwhile, they kept sugar in the clear. The misleading research was published in 1967. It shaped dietary recommendations for years.

NOT SO SWEET

For nearly a century, heart disease has been the leading cause of death in the U.S. Nearly 610,000 people die from it each year—that’s about one in four deaths nationwide. In the 1950s, scientists started looking into why things like heart attacks and strokes—when the blood supply to the brain is blocked—kill so many Americans. They quickly zeroed in on diet. Eventually, the science started to implicate both fat and sugar consumption as leading causes of heart disease.

If word got out that sugar was part of the problem, the sugar industry had a lot to lose. Americans might ditch sweets, costing many companies a lot of business. But if scientists could point the finger away from sugar, Americans would focus on fat instead and continue to eat sweets. That’s what happened, and sugar consumption has since skyrocketed.

Heart disease has been the leading cause of death in the U.S. for almost a century. Nearly 610,000 people die from it each year. That’s about one in four deaths across the nation. In the 1950s, scientists started looking into heart attacks and strokes—when the blood supply to the brain is blocked. They wanted to know why these kill so many Americans. They quickly focused on diet. Over time, the science pointed to fat and sugar as causes of heart disease.

If word got out that sugar was part of the problem, the sugar industry had a lot to lose. Americans might ditch sweets. That would cost many companies a lot of business. But what if scientists pointed the finger away from sugar? Americans would focus on fat instead and keep eating sweets. That’s what happened. Since then, sugar consumption has shot through the roof.

HIDING THE EVIDENCE

Last year, a team of scientists from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), uncovered hundreds of documents indicating that the Sugar Research Foundation, a trade group now known as the Sugar Association, tried to influence what scientists said about sugar. Decades ago, the foundation paid three nutrition researchers from Harvard University $6,500 total—about $50,000 in today’s dollars—to publish a review. This type of scientific article analyzes past research papers to develop a main conclusion on a topic. Their review concluded that fat alone was linked to heart disease. It dismissed research that also found sugar to be a culprit, arguing that those studies were poorly done or that the laboratory findings didn’t apply in the real world. “In the review, the evidence blaming fat was [deemed] strong no matter how weak it was,” says Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at UCSF.  “It was the opposite for sugar.”

Last year, a team of scientists from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) uncovered hundreds of documents. These involved the Sugar Research Foundation, a trade group now known as the Sugar Association. The documents showed that the foundation tried to influence what scientists said about sugar. Decades ago, the foundation paid three nutrition researchers from Harvard University $6,500 total. That’s about $50,000 in today’s dollars. They hired the researchers to publish a review. This type of scientific article looks at past research. Then it develops a main conclusion about the subject. Their review decided that fat alone was linked to heart disease. It rejected research that also found sugar to be a problem. The review claimed that those studies were poorly done or that the laboratory findings didn’t apply in the real world. “In the review, the evidence blaming fat was [deemed] strong no matter how weak it was,” says Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at UCSF.  “It was the opposite for sugar.”

CHANGING STANDARDS

The Sugar Association responded in a statement on the report last September by pointing out that researchers in the 1960s weren’t typically required to disclose who funded their studies. But it added that the Sugar Research Foundation “should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities.” 

Scientists now know that high sugar intake causes high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, heart disease, and obesity. The American Heart Association suggests children ages 2 to 18 not eat more than 25 grams (0.9 ounces) of added sugar a day. “That’s less than [what’s in] a can of regular soda,” says Kimi McAdam, a registered dietitian in Anaheim, California (see Sugar Rush).

The battle over sugar guidelines continues. In December, a new review argued that warnings to reduce sugar consumption were based on low-quality evidence. The International Life Sciences Institute, a group backed by some of the world’s biggest food and drink companies, funded the report. 

The Sugar Association responded to the report in September. They said things were different in the 1960s. Researchers usually didn’t have to say who funded their studies. But they said the Sugar Research Foundation “should have exercised greater transparency.” 

Scientists now know that high sugar intake is a problem. It causes high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, heart disease, and obesity. The American Heart Association suggests that children ages 2 to 18 not eat more than 25 grams (0.9 ounces) of added sugar a day. “That’s less than [what’s in] a can of regular soda,” says Kimi McAdam. She’s a registered dietitian in Anaheim, California (see Sugar Rush).

The battle over sugar guidelines continues. In December, a new review came out. It argued that warnings to reduce sugar consumption were based on low-quality evidence. The International Life Sciences Institute funded the report. It’s backed by some of the world’s biggest food and drink companies.

CORE QUESTION: Now that you know the link between sugar and heart disease, will you change your diet? Use the text to support your reasoning.

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