Evidently, you can’t even trust research from Harvard. At least, not all of it.
A number of media outlets have reported that in the 1960s,
prominent Harvard nutritionists published two reviews in a top medical journal downplaying the role of sugar in coronary heart disease. Newly unearthed documents reveal what they didn’t say: A sugar industry trade group initiated and paid for the studies, examined drafts, and laid out a clear objective to protect sugar’s reputation in the public eye.
The consequences of this deception are several, and they are all deeply disturbing.
First–and most obvious–is the misdirection of subsequent research and government efforts to improve heart health. Thanks largely to the reputation of Harvard and its research faculty, the publications sent other medical researchers down different paths, and retarded accurate evaluation of the role sugar plays in heart disease.
The trade group solicited Hegsted, a professor of nutrition at Harvard’s public health school, to write a literature review aimed at countering early research linking sucrose to coronary heart disease. The group paid the equivalent of $48,000 in 2016 dollars to Hegsted and colleague Dr. Robert McGandy, though the researchers never publicly disclosed that funding source, Kearns found.
Hegsted and Stare tore apart studies that implicated sugar and concluded that there was only one dietary modification — changing fat and cholesterol intake — that could prevent coronary heart disease. Their reviews were published in 1967 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which back then did not require researchers to disclose conflicts of interest.
These, and similar, research reports led to the belief that fat, not sugar, was the culprit, and Americans went on a low-and-no fat binge. What was particularly pernicious about the hundreds of new products designed to meet the goal of lowering fat content was the food industry’s preferred method of making low-fat offerings taste good: the addition of sugar. Lots of sugar.
The health consequences of this dishonesty–however grave– are ultimately less troubling than the damage done to academic credibility.
We live in an era where significant numbers of people reject scientific facts that conflict with their preferred worldviews. News of academic corruption provides them with “evidence” that science is a scam and scholarship–especially scholarship that debunks their beliefs– is ideologically tainted.
Even the best, most rigorous research studies are only as good as the hypotheses tested and the methodologies employed. Some will inevitably prove to be flawed, no matter how honestly conducted. That’s unfortunate enough, but when industry can “buy” favorable results, it further undermines the credibility of all research results.
The discovery of the sugar industry’s role in twisting nutritional research results joins what we now know about the similar machinations of cigarette companies and fossil fuel industries.
In 2009, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style, examining the causes and effects of our mounting levels of social distrust. I wish I could say that time has made the book and its conclusions obsolete–but I can’t.
It’s understandable–but deeply disturbing– that so many Americans no longer trust science, business, government or each other. Without trust, social capital erodes, suspicion replaces collaboration, and societies disintegrate.