Sugar was suspected as a cause of heart disease in the 1960s, but the Sugar Association threw everyone off the scent by paying the equivalent of $50,000 to three Harvard scientists for a review that minimized the link between sugar and heart disease and instead suspected saturated fats.
The seminal paper, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, influenced government health policy and was instrumental in launching the low-fat foods industry.
But the whole thing was a scam, paid for by the sugar industry, documents uncovered by a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco have revealed. One of the Harvard scientists paid by the sugar industry was D Mark Hegsted, who went on to become head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, and who drafted the dietary guidelines for the US in 1977.
The paper was initiated by John Hickson, a prominent sugar industry executive, who wanted to deflect the blame away from sugar and onto saturated fats, which was in line with the theories of Ancel Keys, who falsified research to demonstrate that saturated fats raised cholesterol levels, and which, in turn, cause cardiovascular disease.
Mr Hickson recruited the researchers, paid them the money, gave them the papers to review, and told them he wanted a result that showed sugar in a good light. As the researchers reviewed the material, they sent Hickson early drafts, and he told them he was pleased with their work. “Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind, and we look forward to its appearance in print,” he told them.
The paper was part of a movement that inspired the launch of low-fat foods and drinks, which also happened to be high in sugars. Even today, warnings about eating saturated fats are still part of general health advice, although sugars are slowly being recognised as another cause of heart disease.