By Marika Sboros
Was there ever really a “Big Sugar Conspiracy”? Did the sugar industry (including Coca-Cola) indulge in widespread funding and influencing of nutrition scientists and professionals?
Only in some scientists’ fevered minds, according to an editorial in Science Magazine by two US public health history researchers. They say that the claim of industry “meddling” to demonise fat instead of sugar is just an “alluring tale”.
Researchers dreamt it up based on a “highly selective and profoundly flawed interpretation of the history”, they say.
Their view doesn’t sit well with many distinguished scientists and journalists who have documented that very meddling. One of them is Dr Robert Lustig, a target of the editorial’s authors. Lustig is professor emeritus of paediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and author of Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar. His most recent book is The Hacking of the American Mind. The subtitle is The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains.
Lustig doesn’t say so in so many words, but his public response makes his opinion of the editorial’s authors clear: sugar corporates have taken over their bodies and brains.
Lustig holds a B Sc from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a doctorate in medicine from Cornell University. He also has a Master’s of Studies in Law from University of California Hastings College of the Law.
He specialises in neuroendocrinology, with an emphasis on the central nervous system’s regulation of energy balance. His research and clinical practice have focused on childhood obesity and diabetes.
Lustig has co-authored an open letter to the editors of Science Magazine with Wolfram Alderson, CEO of the University of San Francisco Hypoglycemia Support Foundation.
They are withering in their critique of the editorial by David Merritt Johns and Gerald M Oppenheimer.
Johns is a journalist and PhD candidate with Columbia University School of Public Health’s Centre for the History and Ethics of Public Health. Oppenheimer is a historian of public health with the City University of New York’s School of Public Health.
They have published an article on their Science Magazine editorial in the online magazine, 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 crystal clear. Their article is headlined a vigorous Not Guilty!
They quote Harvard cardiologist Dr Bernard Lown, who worked in Harvard’s nutrition department during the 1960s. That’s not surprising since Harvard scientists feature prominently in reports of inappropriate industry collaboration and the “war” on fat rather than sugar.
They note that Lown later shared the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize with a Soviet physician for their advocacy on the prevention of nuclear war. And they quote Lown as saying that the claim that the sugar industry bought off his former co-workers was “an invention after the fact about what happened”.
Johns and Oppenheimer also have Lustig clearly in their sights for what they deem to be unwarranted “nutritional lionization” of anti-sugar scientists.
Their main target for discrediting is the late Dr John Yudkin, British physiologist, nutritionist, and founding professor of the Department of Nutrition at Queen Elizabeth College, London. Yudkin is also author of Pure, White and Deadly, a seminal book that warned of the health risks of sugar way back in 1972.
Yudkin paid a high price for enraging the sugar and related low-fat, high-carb, processed food and soft-drink industries and the scientists who supported them. Among those who attacked Yudkin relentlessly was Dr Ancel Keys, the creator of the now discredited diet-heart hypothesis that saturated fat causes heart disease.
US investigative journalist Nina Teicholz has shown how Keys ignored evidence that sugar and others carbohydrate are far more likely causes of heart disease. In her book, Big Fat Surprise, Teicholz also shows why low-fat diets can be lethal.
Lustig has always made his respect for Yudkin clear. He has, as Johns and Oppenheimer note, called himself a Yudkin “disciple”. They claim that Yudkin’s research was shaky, scientifically. They accuse “present-day Yudkin disciples” (a clear reference to Lustig) of “looking past” the extent to the food industry “richly supported” his research.
Yudkin had an “industry-friendly attitude” that “looks naïve, or even a bit shady”, they claim. They say that “conspiratorial tales, when not grounded in strong evidence, can pose a real danger to our ability to make good public health policies and understand how science actually works”.
Lustig and Alderson have used a forensic scientific scalpel to eviscerate the Science Magazine editorial. They hone in specific statements and conclusions Johns and Oppenheimer make. These are shown in bold in the full open letter below.
They say that Johns and Oppenheimer may appear at first to be on an “honorable mission”: to defend scientific debate and public health discourse from hyperbole and conspiracy theories. Instead, and whether by default or design, they appear to exonerate “an implicated scientist (the late Dr Mark Hegsted) who let industry forge his arguments and who took money doing it”.
Johns and Oppenheimer also appear not to “possess the scientific knowledge to understand the critique of the science listed in their citations”.
Lustig and Alderson begin their open letter to Science Magazine with a definition “Needle in a haystack”: An item that is very hard or impossible to locate. Here’s the rest of their letter:
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) titled Was there ever really a “sugar conspiracy”? authored 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, published in the Policy Forum of Science Magazine. 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, such as those at UCSF (Cristin Kearns, Laura Schmidt, Stan Glantz), who have painstakingly researched the inappropriate and undue influence of the sugar industry 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; scientists who advocate for the public good versus those who work for industry; nutrition science covering one controversial macronutrient (fat) and one food additive (added sugar); and hypothesis of the cause(s) of heart disease.
This editorial leads with an oft-repeated headline in the controversy-laden nutrition field, and 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.
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, 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 who 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, and concluded that there was only one dietary focus (using a separate standard) — changing fat and cholesterol intake — that would prevent coronary heart disease.
“Our study raises questions about how to assess the historical influence of special interests on nutrition science and policy.”
The authors believe 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 who has something to lose has engaged in similar behavior. Lead, alcohol, smoking, chemical pollution, air pollution, and now climate change.
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 use the term “conspiracy” to describe the actions of the sugar industry. Rather, it was just “business as usual”. None of them are conducting “conspiracy research”.
Only newspaper headline writers used the term to stoke the flames … like the authors of this editorial. They use the term but place it in quotation marks without attributing it to a specific author, leaving the readers to assume that researchers (such as Kearns, Schmidt, and Glantz) have used it.
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. Try and find one article or research paper in which these researchers use the “conspiracy” word. You won’t find it because they don’t.
“…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 what these scientists have been doing is asking for — urging — transparency and ethics in contemporary nutrition science research?
The authors conflate the past with the present in their straw man argument. Yes, in the past, taking money from the food industry to conduct research without stating the conflict of interest was the norm, and today such practices today are purportedly discouraged.
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 – they are constantly bombarded by propaganda campaigns levelled by the sugar industry attacking their evidence and 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, it doesn’t mean examining any one sector with academic rigor is fallacious.
“…we believe recent high-profile claims come from researchers who have overextended the analogy of the tobacco industry playbook and failed to assess historical actors by the norms and standards of their time.”
Interesting assertion, but is it true? The authors refer to their “study”, but don’t provide any evidence this assertion is true. The scientists listed in the references of this article haven’t ignored history or tradition — they are, in fact, investigating and dissecting it.
Within every branch of science, there are practitioners of that science who take it upon themselves to defend the integrity and development of the science. If that is the intention of these authors, then they deserve credit for keeping the field on track.
However, the authors’ most serious accusation is that scientists in the field are distorting history, overextending themselves, and employing hyperbole and “conspiracy” mongering. In the final analysis, lacking any real evidence from their own “study”, we must conclude that it is the authors of this editorial who are in fact overextending themselves.
“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.
Robert H. Lustig, MD, MSL: “As an endocrinologist who does research in this field, I am held to very high standards before publication. I am dismayed to find out that, contrary to their assertion, historians are held to a lower standard.” –
Wolfram Alderson, MS: “As a member of the public health community concerned with the explosion of metabolic diseases related to sugar consumption, I’m encouraged to see scientists and journalists advancing the science about sugar and uncovering the pernicious practices of the sugar industry – and dismayed to see these champions of nutrition science and public health labeled and downgraded as conspiracy theorists in journals committed to revealing scientific truths.”
We encourage readers to submit their own Letters to the Editor of Science Magazine highlighting these concerns: http://www.sciencemag.org/site/misc/editor.xhtml