By Marika Sboros
Was there ever a “Big Sugar Conspiracy”? Did the sugar industry (including Coca-Cola) really und and influence nutrition scientists and research.
Only in some scientists’ minds, say US public health history researchers in an editorial in Science Magazine. They claim that industry “meddling” to demonise fat instead of sugar is just an “alluring tale”.
Others vehemently disagree, among them Dr Robert Lustig, professor emeritus of paediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Lustig is author of Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar. His most recent book is The Hacking of the American Mind, The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains.
Lustig is co-author of an open letter Science Magazine with Wolfram Alderson, CEO of the University of San Francisco Hypoglycemia Support Foundation. They are withering in critique of the editorial by David Merritt Johns and Gerald M Oppenheimer.
Lustig specialises in neuroendocrinology and the central nervous system’s regulation of energy balance. His research and clinical practice have focused on childhood obesity and diabetes. He also has a BSc from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate in medicine from Cornell. As well, he has a Master’s of Studies in Law from University of California.
Johns is a public health historian, journalist, and postdoctoral fellow at the Yale School of Public Health. Oppenheimer is a public health historian at City University of New York’s School of Public Health.
Both have also written on their Science Magazine editorial in Slate. From the outset, their opinion on the role of Big Sugar’s contribution to pandemics of life-threatening diseases via payments to selected scientists is clear from the headline: Not Guilty!
Funding the war on fat
They quote Harvard cardiologist Dr Bernard Lown, who worked in Harvard’s nutrition department during the 1960s. They also quote Lown saying that the claim that the sugar industry bought off his former co-workers was “an invention after the fact”.
Lown shared the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize with a Soviet physician for advocacy on nuclear war prevention. Harvard scientists feature prominently in reports of inappropriate industry collaboration and funding the “war” on fat.
Johns and Oppenheimer have Lustig in their sights for “nutritional lionization” of anti-sugar scientists. Consequently, another target is the late British physiologist Dr John Yudkin British physiologist. Yudkin was founding professor of the Department of Nutrition at Queen Elizabeth College, London. He also wrote Pure, White and Deadly, a seminal book that warned of the health risks of sugar way back in 1972.
He paid dearly for going up against sugar, other processed food and soft-drink industries and the scientists who supported them. Among Yudkin’s relentless critics was Dr Ancel Keys, creator of the diet-heart hypothesis that saturated fat causes heart disease.
Low-fat diets ‘can kill’
Meanwhile, US investigative journalist Nina Teicholz has regularly shown how Keys ignored evidence that sugar and other carbohydrates more likely caused heart disease. In her book, Big Fat Surprise, Teicholz also shows why low-fat diets can be lethal.
Johns and Oppenheimer accuse Lustig and other “present-day Yudkin disciples” of ignoring the extent to which the food industry “richly supported” Yudkin’s research. And they claim that Yudkin had an “industry-friendly attitude” that “looks naïve, or even a bit shady”.
Lustig and Alderson begin their open letter to Science Magazine with a definition: “Needle in a haystack”. Here’s a shortened version (with statements from Johns and Oppenheimer in bold followed by responses from Lustifgand Alderson):
By Robert Lustig and Wolfram Alderson
In February of 1939, Jim Moran, “a folk hero in the PR business,” pulled a publicity stunt over the course of 82.5 hours, and conducted a search for the proverbial “needle in the haystack”. He finally found it “near the bottom and slightly to the left of center.”
When reading the article in Science Magazine (2/16/18), Was there ever really a “sugar conspiracy”? by David Merritt Johns and Gerald M Oppenheimer one might feel like a bit like Moran all those years ago – searching through a lot of hay to find a point.
While the authors refer to their “study”, this is really an editorial in the Policy Forum of Science Magazine. And while it attempts to elaborate on a history of nutrition research and offers lots of pontification, it is unclear that it offers either policy or science.
Instead, it appears to critique the work of researchers who have painstakingly researched the sugar industry’s inappropriate and undue influence on science and scientists.
The editorial pursues several narratives including popular debates about sugar science; sugar and tobacco industry practices and intrigue; how nutrition science is funded and published; dietary policies; and scientists who advocate for the public good versus those who work for industry.
It leads with an oft-repeated headline in the controversy-laden nutrition field. It levies multiple assertions interspersed in a tall haystack of red herrings, innuendo, and straw men (attacking arguments that were not presented).
The authors reference the science and studies of others, providing a list of “supplemental materials” to support their assertions; except there’s little or no evaluation of the quality of the science and the veracity of the evidence they are presenting.
Inadequate scientific expertise?
In fact, it appears the authors do not possess the scientific knowledge to understand the critique of the science listed in their citations.
On first pass, you might get the impression that the authors are on an honorable mission. That they defending scientific debate and public health discourse from hyperbole and conspiracy theories.
But upon further analysis, intentionally or unintentionally, they appear to be exonerating an implicated scientist who let industry forge his arguments and took money doing it. They appear to believe that Hegsted and Stare would have written exactly the same review with or without the sugar industry funding.
Whether or not taking money from industry was the norm without declaration, it is difficult to imagine that this didn’t influence Hegsted and Stare who dissected studies (using one standard) that implicated sugar.
“Our study raises questions about how to assess the historical influence of special interests on nutrition science and policy.”
The authors believe that special interests influencing nutrition science and health policy have been unduly called out and categorized – that the sugar industry and the scientists they paid were just doing what other sectors in the food industry were doing at that time, and that analogies comparing their practices, strategies and tactics to those of the tobacco industry is conjecturing and inaccurate – “overextending”.
What makes this OK? The only sin of the sugar industry is that “they got caught”? In fact, every industry that has something to lose has engaged in similar behavior.
But because it is science, it takes scientists to recognize it. Perhaps because Johns and Oppenheimer are not sugar or nutrition scientists they don’t understand this? Or, should they, since the practice is so common across industries?
Was there ever really a “sugar conspiracy”?
Great question. None of the scientists referenced in the article uses the term “conspiracy” to describe the actions of the sugar industry. Rather, it was just “business as usual”. None of them is conducting “conspiracy research”.
Only newspaper headline writers used the term to stoke the flames … like the authors of this editorial.
Click here to read: Taubes and the case against sugar: sweet and sour
This isn’t good science writing, to say the least. In the science field, it is sort of equivalent to shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.
“…we believe that there is no good reason to conclude that SRF’s sponsorship of a literature review meaningfully shaped the course of dietary science and policy.”
This is the authors’ conclusion, which is their prerogative. However, they claim to have conducted a study (which we are interested in seeing). Meanwhile, why not consider the analysis of scientists who ACTUALLY have conducted a thorough and published study?
“…we think it is an error to demonize, almost as a reflex, scientists and their research when there is evidence of private funding.”
True. But, exactly who is being accused of demonizing? Aren’t the authors accusing a group of notable scientists of demonizing — when in fact they’ve been asking for — transparency and ethics in contemporary nutrition science research?
The authors conflate the past with the present in their straw man argument.
Unfortunately, as the exposé by Anahad O’Connor in the New York Times (2015), Aaron and Siegel in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (2017), and Stuckler et al in the Journal of Public Health Policy (2018) revealed, the practice (of taking money from industry without reporting it) continues.
And the sugared beverage industry has, in very recent history, been covert in widespread funding. And influencing of scientists and professionals in the nutrition science field.
“…arguments that the sugar industry “suppressed” evidence should be tested against alternative hypotheses…”
Great idea. Perhaps this is the job of the sugar industry since the authors appear to support the false equivalency of industry-sponsored research with that of academics who receive no industry funding?
Ask any of these academics if their evidence about the sugar industry is lacking alternative hypotheses.
The problem with these alternative hypotheses is industry can’t prove them. They don’t stand up to scientific rigor, and when they do try, the outcomes are obviously skewed. Dean Schillinger, MD, Professor of Medicine, UCSF, looked at this question in a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2017 and found evidence of industry bias in evaluating studies of sugar and health.
“Our history also underscores the fallacy of emphasizing the machinations of one commodity sector when multiple food industries were deploying similar techniques of influence in the battle for market share.”
The authors state that it is a fallacy to look at the practices of one food industry sector while others are engaging in similar practices. So, following this logic, the US District Attorney can’t prosecute one Mafia family if he/she doesn’t prosecute them all? Just because multiple sectors of the food industry may be employing the same tactics doesn’t mean examining any one sector with academic rigour is fallacious.
“…we believe recent high-profile claims come from researchers who have overextended the analogy of the tobacco industry playbook .”
Interesting assertion but is it true? The authors refer to their “study” but don’t provide any evidence this assertion is true. And the scientists listed in the references of this article haven’t ignored history or tradition. They are, in fact, investigating and dissecting it.
“Historical investigations of ‘merchants of doubt’ have been invaluable in showing that scientific uncertainty is sometimes the product of deliberate acts of deception.”
This is EXACTLY THE POINT. And if the authors had started with this premise, they never would have penned the editorial.