How big sugar got such a sweet deal for so long

Today is Columbus Day. This holiday is best known for its ties to Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. But it also commemorates the “Columbian Exchange,” or the exchange of foods and other plants between Europe and the Americas. The Americas provided several important, useful foods to Europe such as beans, chocolate, corn, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, squashes, and tomatoes. Europe’s dubious contribution to this Columbian Exchange was sugar. It eventually took over the vegetation of several Caribbean Islands and ruined the ecology for generations.

But the mass destruction caused by sugar didn’t stop with the environment. In fact, sugar is at the center of a new scandal so big it’s shaking up the entire academic-industrial-government-medical complex.

According to a new report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, five decades of research on the role of diet and nutrition in heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, were bought and paid for by the sugar industry. This “hush money” paid for so-called research that covered up sugar’s real role in heart disease — and placed the blame squarely (and inaccurately) on dietary fat and cholesterol instead.

I’ll tell you more about this scandal in just a moment. But first, let’s take a look back at sugar’s long, nefarious history…

How sugar gave rise to deadly epidemics, slavery, and the mob

The labor-intensive way sugar was cultivated helped create the conditions for deadly epidemics of infectious diseases, which swept the Americas — and the world — periodically. One such epidemic even decimated the capital of the young United States in 1793, most likely brought by French citizens escaping through France’s Caribbean Islands during the French Revolution. It literally killed one of 10 people in the new U.S. capital.

Abundant sugar also led to the widespread distillation and availability of inexpensive rum during the 1700s and 1800s. The problem of intoxication was so widespread at the time it became known as “demon rum,” leading to the temperance movement, and eventually to prohibition of alcohol during the 1920s. Which, in turn, created organized crime, which plagues public health and safety to this day.

Of course, the infamous triangle trade of molasses (crude cane sugar), to slaves, to rum (distilled cane sugar) also fostered the global slave trade and kept slavery in place in the Americas long after it was abolished in Europe.

Sugar was behind various plots, revolutions and rebellions during the 19th century, as well as revolutions and counter-revolutions in Latin America during the 20th century. Many countries known as “banana Republics” might be better called “sugar Republics.” Castro’s Cuba is one legacy of the abuses of political power due, ultimately, to the sugar industry.

As you can see, the negative health effects of sugar in terms of social health, public safety, and sobriety were all in evidence long before 21st century science.

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that newly uncovered documents have implicated sugar in a massive health scandal that dates back more than 50 years.

The deadly cover up that dictated health guidelines for half a century

A new analysis was published in the prominent journal JAMA Internal Medicine on September 12, 2016. It documents early correspondence between a sugar trade group and researchers at Harvard University. And it reveals that food and beverage makers have been manipulating public understanding of nutrition for over half a century.

According to the JAMA report, the sugar industry began funding research to cast doubt on sugar’s role in heart disease during the early 1960s. In part, the plot was to point the finger at fat instead. And boy did that ever work.

In 1964, the group now known as the Sugar Association became concerned about “negative attitudes” toward sugar after scientific studies began linking sugar intake with heart disease. The following year, the group paid Harvard University $48,900 to review the scientific literature. The sugar daddies supplied the articles they wanted reviewed and received advance drafts of the Harvard article for their own review before it was published.

The resulting 1967 article in the influential New England Journal of Medicine claimed there was “no doubt” that the answer to preventing heart disease was reducing dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. This review overstated the studies on cholesterol and fats, while completely neglecting the studies on sugar. And the sugar industry’s role in funding and controlling the results was not disclosed.

In my own experience growing up, I remember parents cautioning children about eating sugar, while nobody worried about having a balanced diet including butter, meat, seafood, and other sources of dietary cholesterol and fats. But by the time I was in medical training during the 1970s, the story had shifted completely away from sugar. And by the time I got to NIH in 1984, the evidence against sugar had been buried with nary a peep in the report on diet and chronic diseases from the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ironically, in 1979, it was Mark Hegstead and his group at Harvard University who reported there is no connection between dietary cholesterol intake and blood cholesterol levels. (All cholesterol is broken down in the digestive tract, and the body needs to make its own cholesterol to support cell membranes, normal hormone production, and other key metabolic functions.) I know because Dr. Hegstead presented an intimate round-table seminar to our research group at NIH in 1984.

Meantime, during the 1970s, detailed experimental patho-physiologic research at the Philadelphia Zoo in primates confirmed that there is no connection between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol levels, and no connection between blood cholesterol levels and heart disease.

Yet, thanks to the “research” bankrolled by the sugar industry, the truth about fat and cholesterol was buried for more than 50 years. How’s that for “evidence-based” medicine?

The game is up

Finally, over the past two years, it has been exposed that the “standard” dietary recommendations to reduce cholesterol and saturated fats to prevent heart disease have been all wrong, all along. And after 50 years of “framing” the wrong culprits, the finger is being pointed back at sugar as the major risk factor for obesity, diabetes and heart disease. (What’s worse, the blockbuster drugs used to lower cholesterol cause diabetes, the leading cause of cardio-metabolic heart disease. They also damage muscles — and, of course, the heart is the most important muscle in the body. And these drugs arose as a direct result of misleading data procured by the sugar industry — the real culprit behind heart disease.)

The JAMA article concludes that five decades of research on the role of diet and nutrition in heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.

So, when the little ghosts and goblins come around trick-or-treating later this month on Halloween, remember the scariest thing of all is what you may be handing out to the costumed children at your door.

And for a half-century, sugar has been wearing the best disguise of all.


“Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents,” JAMA Internal Medicine, epub ahead of print 9/12/16

“Lowering the Bar on the Low-Fat Diet.” JAMA ( 9/28/2016