Your Facebook questions answered: Are there hidden agendas in nutrition research?

“What about this, eh? I am always highly (usually completely) skeptical when anyone mentions conspiracy theories, but there looks like there’s actually merit to this one! Unbelievable!”  asks Enlightened Eater Facebook fan, Karen Jorgenson Cooper‎

Karen, while you may think of it as a conspiracy theory, when it comes to food companies and interest groups and nutrition links, the government has a different name for it – stakeholders. Yes, indeed, there is merit to this one. And it’s still happening now but the shocking and disappointing part of this story is that it was done back then  in secret.

The article, How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat, outlines a recent report published online by JAMA Internal Medicine  which using archived documents, looked at   the sugar industry’s role in coronary heart disease research back in the 1960s. The report suggests the sugar industry sponsored research to  influence the scientific debate about heart disease. They wanted the scientists to cast doubt on the harmful effects  of sugar and to promote dietary fat as the culprit in heart disease.

The authors of the report examined internal documents from the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), which later evolved into the Sugar Association, historical reports and other material  including correspondence between the SRF and a Harvard University professor of nutrition who was co-director of the SRF’s first coronary heart disease research program in the 1960s.

The SRF’s   first project was a literature review published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967 which focused on fat and cholesterol as the dietary causes of coronary heart disease and downplayed sugar consumption as also a risk factor. SRF set the review’s objective, contributed articles to be included and received drafts, while the SRF’s funding and role were not disclosed, according to the article.

But let’s be clear here: the scientists were asked to downplay sugar and highlight the impact of saturated fats. The clandestine action on the sugar front doesn’t give saturated fat a health halo. It still doesn’t offer any health benefits.

Nowadays, there are rules for disclosure of funds being provided by industry or interest groups  for research. These must be included in the journals where the research is published.  But this information frequently doesn’t make it into the media report that trumpets the findings of a particular study. That also doesn’t mean that sponsored research might not be valid.

An accompanying editorial by well-known and outspoken nutrition advocate, Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., of New York University, offers critical insight into the issue. She writes,  “This 50-year-old incident may seem like ancient history, but it is quite relevant, not least because it answers some questions germane to our current era. … The authors have done the nutrition science community a great public service by bringing this historical example to light. May it serve as a warning not only to policymakers, but also to researchers, clinicians, peer reviewers, journal editors, and journalists of the need to consider the harm to scientific credibility and public health when dealing with studies funded by food companies with vested interests in the results – and to find better ways to fund such studies and to prevent, disclose and manage potentially conflicted interests,”.

But while there may be disclosure rules when it comes to research publication in journals, what about those with a vested interest in nutrition policy recommendations? Are we being protected against a conflict of interest here?

It doesn’t appear that this is the case.

Up next: Conspiracy theories, conflicts of interest and stakeholders – what does this mean for you?

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Categories: Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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