How the Sugar Industry Pushed the Blame on Cardiovascular Disease to Fat

There was an article recently released in the NY Times discussing how the sugar industry influenced the review of studies linking dietary habits with coronary heart disease. Not surprisingly, the sugar industry paid some of the experts to minimize links on sugar or sucrose (fructose and glucose) and push the findings to look at saturated fat as the culprit. 

Much of my nutrition reading and research has shown that the dietary guidelines to reduce saturated fat (and not sugar) were based on biased studies, such as the flawed Ancel Keyes' Seven Countries Study, which was actually based on 22 countries but only seven countries reflected the data he needed to substantiate his hypothesis, linking saturated fat to cardiovascular disease. The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz is an excellent read for those that want to understand more on how the misinformation on saturated fats influenced dietary guidelines and how new findings are finally overturning the belief that saturated fat causes coronary disease. 

That said, I was still shocked and very upset to learn about the sugar industry's influence on dietary guidelines since the 1960s. These are the same dietary guidelines that have led us to higher rates of obesity, diabetes and coronary heart disease. According to the article, the internal sugar industry documents, uncovered by a researcher at UCSF, suggest that the sugar industry has influenced much of the dietary guidelines for the last 50 years. Information from the internal documents was published in the JAMA Internal Medicine so I had to start by reading the publication. I encourage you to also read it but I have to warn you, it is upsetting. 

In 1954, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) saw an opportunity to capture market share by shifting consumers to eat a lower fat diet and replace those calories with sugar. They decided to use money (the equivalent of $5.3 million today) to help "teach" people that sugar is needed to give us energy to "face our daily problems." From there they launched Project 226. 

In 1964, the SRF was alerted that new coronary heart disease research was cause for concern: “From a number of laboratories of greater or lesser repute, there are flowing reports that sugar is a less desirable dietary source of calories than other carbohydrates." At that point, the SRF launched a campaign to counteract this research. But this was just the beginning, as there were other negative findings coming out against sugar, which you can read about in publication (see link above).

In 1967, Project 226 posted a 2-part literature review “Dietary Fats, Carbohydrates and Atherosclerotic Disease,” in the New England Journal of Medicine. The review concluded that Americans should reduce dietary cholesterol and eat more polyunsaturated fats to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The review did not mention that it was funded by the SRF.

The review discounted studies that the SRF found threatening, particularly those showing that sucrose increased serum cholesterol and triglycerides, sugar negatively affected the microbiome (impressive that they determined this many years ago and we are just learning more about the microbiome today!) and fructose consumption led to higher levels of fat formation. The review also snubbed studies showing that replacing sugar with starches improved triglycerides and, most importantly, that substituting fat or vegetables for sugar had a large effect on improving serum cholesterol levels. 

To point the finger at saturated fat, the review left out much of the results regarding changes in fat intake and overstated the results of one study to conclude that substituting polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat improves serum cholesterol levels. Although this one study was not well controlled, the review stated, "the lack of mechanistic evidence confirming the biological plausibility that dietary cholesterol and saturated fat raised serum cholesterol levels was unimportant."

As you can see, it's alarming to know how much food industry influences our dietary guidelines, but the good news is that things are changing. People are starting to realize that all fats, including saturated fat, are not bad for us. Adding more fat to the diet can help improve many things including blood sugar regulation, weight management, hormone levels, inflammation and, yes, even coronary heart disease.