Sponsored research infringes on basic rights

According to a recent article published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal, the sugar industry funded research in the 1960s that downplayed the health risks of sugar in favor of emphasizing those of fats. The article contains internal documents that show how a group in the industry called the Sugar Research Foundation sought to disprove the idea that sugar possibly played a role in the development of heart disease.

The SRF sponsored research that supported its aims and discredited research that went against its findings. Harvard researchers were paid the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s money to publish research that downplayed the connection between sugar and heart health. Instead, fat was blamed for an increased risk in heart disease. Various studies that suggested a link between heart disease and sugar were rejected or criticized for supposed scientific faults.

In 1954, the president of the SRF pointed out that encouraging U.S. citizens to cut fats from their diets led them to replace those lost carbohydrates with sugar. He speculated that sugar consumption in the United States would rise immensely. During that period, scientific articles were published that warned against the empty calories of sugar.

Soon after, several more were published that suggested a link between sucrose and coronary heart disease. It was around then that John Hickson, vice president and director of research to SRF, suggested that the industry fund its own efforts in order to “publish the data and refute our detractors.”

The problem is not only the blatant abuse of power by the SRF to further its own goals, but the weight its decisions carry. If there are 50 studies that state that fat plays a much bigger part in contracting heart disease than sugar, then that idea becomes a commonly accepted fact. No scientist is going to conduct

research to prove otherwise and whatever ancillary research he or she does conduct will be done under the assumption that the conclusion of those 50 studies is true. To try to disprove those studies would seem pointless, perhaps foolish to most scientists. The best comparison would be when Galileo Galilei promoted heliocentrism in an era when everyone believed earth to be the center of the universe.

The SRF and those researchers who accepted money to tweak their findings are unethical, not only because their findings are doctored, but also because their findings have helped shaped how U.S. citizens think about their diet. According to the National Committee of Quality Assurance, “more than two-thirds (68.8 percent) of adults are considered to be overweight or obese.” These scientists and researchers have contributed to that percentage. Industry-funded studies will never go away, but less validity should be given to those studies or more peer-review could be enacted to help lessen their impact. Such as a basic causal relationship implies, sugar does not simply lead to immense weight gain. Rather, sugar is a defining factor in it.