Imagine a political historian discovers that Lyndon Johnson accepted a campaign contribution from a big Wall Street bank. Since Johnson’s policies helped shape the modern Democratic Party, everyone agrees the Democrats are built on a foundation of lies. “Republicans Vindicated; Small-Government Conservativism Was Right All Along”, say the headlines of all the major newspapers.
This is kind of how I feel about the reaction to the latest New York Times article.
How The Sugar Industry Shifted Blame To Fat describes new historical research that finds that the sugar industry sponsored a study showing that fat (and not sugar) was the major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. They tie this into a bigger narrative about how sugar is the real dietary villain, and it’s only the sugar industry’s successful bribery work that made us suspect fat for so long:
The revelations are important because the debate about the relative harms of sugar and saturated fat continues today, Dr. Glantz said. For many decades, health officials encouraged Americans to reduce their fat intake, which led many people to consume low-fat, high-sugar foods that some experts now blame for fueling the obesity crisis.
“It was a very smart thing the sugar industry did, because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion,” he said […]
I’m glad researchers have discovered this. But treating it as a smoking gun which exonerates fat and blames sugar is like the political example above. Yes, it’s sketchy for LBJ to take Wall Street money. But this kind of low-level corruption is so universal that concentrating on any one example is likely to lead to overcorrection.
Yes, the sugar lobby sponsors some research, but the fat lobby has researchers of its own. They tend to be associated with the dairy and meat industries, both of which are high in saturated fat and both of which are very involved in nutrition research. For example, Siri-Tarino et al’s Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease finds that saturated fat does not increase heart disease risk, but it has a little footnote saying that it’s supported by the National Dairy Council. Modulation of Replacement Nutrients, which finds that replacing dietary fat with dietary sugar doesn’t help and may worsen heart disease, includes two authors affiliated with the National Dairy Council and one affiliated with the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.
Mother Jones does a dairy industry expose and finds:
[Industry] ties can sometimes be hard to avoid, since much of the research on dairy is funded by a constellation of industry-backed institutes, including the Nestlé Nutrition Institute, the Dannon Institute, and the Dairy Research Institute, which spends $19 million a year “to establish the health benefits of dairy products and ingredients.” Even Willett acknowledges that he has received a “very small” dairy industry grant. Dairy companies also donate heavily to the American Society for Nutrition, which publishes the influential American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals.”
Then there are the industry’s donations to politicians. Dairy companies spent nearly $63 million on federal lobbying and gave $24 million to candidates between 2004 and 2014.
As Jim Babcock points out in the comments, some of the agendas are more complicated than I’m making them sound. Dairy was pretty okay with the low-fat craze for a while, because it let them market low-fat milk. But they do seem to be behind a lot of the pro-saturated-fat research going on right now, and their website does promote pro-saturated-fat articles (1, 2, 3). Overall they seem to be taking a low-key approach where they roll with some studies and push back on others.
In any case, claims that the sugar industry sponsored one study back in the 1960s, and this means everything we’ve ever thought is wrong and biased against fat and in favor of sugar, miss the point (especially since there are probably problems with both sugar and fat). Whatever study the New York Times has dredged up was one volley in an eternal clandestine war of Big Fat against Big Sugar, and figuring out who’s distorted the science more is the sort of project that’s going to take more than one article.