New research reveals that a dangerous cornerstone of American nutrition in the 20th century was funded by the sugar industry.

The sugar industry worked with scientists in the 1950s and 1960s to downplay sucrose's role in causing coronary heart disease and other nutritional risks, according to a paper by UC San Francisco researchers published in JAMA Internal Medicine on Monday.

In other words, the move to single out fat and cholesterol as the biggest problems in American diets was a coordinated effort by the trade association, the Sugar Research Foundation, intended to increase the consumption of sucrose.

The crux of the new research is a 1965 paper that played a major role in making low-fat diets the nutritional norm in the US.

The Sugar Research Foundation paid the modern equivalent of US$50,000 to fund the project, which argued cholesterol – not sucrose – was the sole relevant factor in studying and preventing coronary heart disease.

bi-sugar-2016-1Sugar has become a cornerstone ingredient in American diets, even in unlikely foods, such as Subway sandwiches. Credit: Hollis Johnson

However, this funding was not disclosed when the literature review was published in 1967, despite the fact that the sugar industry set the review's objective, contributed articles, and read drafts prior to publication.

"The literature review helped shape not only public opinion on what causes heart problems but also the scientific community's view of how to evaluate dietary risk factors for heart disease," lead author Cristin Kearns said in a statement.

UCSF researchers concluded that the sugar industry had a hand in guiding researchers to recommend low-fat diets after analysing more than 340 documents between the sugar industry and two scientists, Roger Adams and D. Mark Hegsted.

Last year, it was revealed that the Sugar Research Foundation similarly downplayed the role of sugar in cavity prevention and tooth decay.

As the low-fat diet trend took hold of the US, the sugar industry thrived. Food makers began replacing fat with sugar – which is exactly what the industry had wanted.

"This change would mean an increase in the per capita consumption of sugar more than a third with tremendous improvement in general health," Sugar Research Foundation president Henry Hass said in 1954, addressing nutritional research that could encourage Americans to eat less fat.

bi-sugar-2016-2Coca-Cola has been similarly accused of funding research that downplays the role of sugar-sweetened drinks in the modern obesity crisis. Credit: Maya83/Flickr

However, the research that condemned fat while ignoring the role of sugar is now widely seen as misguided.

Americans consume 30 percent more sugar daily now than three decades ago, according to the Obesity Society. American children eat three times as much added sugar as they should.

While the paper studied the sugar industry's influence on nutritional research in the 1950s and 60s, concern that food makers still play an oversized role in scientific research remains today.

"We have to ask ourselves how many lives and dollars could have been saved, and how different today's health picture would be, if the industry were not manipulating science in this way," Jim Krieger, executive director of Health Food America, said in a comment about the paper.

"Only 50 years later are we waking up to the true harm from sugar. Yet industry continues to use its time-honored tactics of creating doubt about valid science they deem damaging to its bottom line and deflecting blame from their products."

Last year, Coca-Cola came under fire for donating $1.5 million to a nutrition nonprofit, while denying its influence in the inner workings of the organisation. Emails revealed that Coca Cola helped pick the group's leaders, edited its mission statement, and suggested articles and videos for its website.

Coca-Cola has promised to increase its transparency about research partnerships going forward.

The Sugar Association – the modern name for the Sugar Research Foundation – released the following statement in response to the new paper:

"We acknowledge that the Sugar Research Foundation should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities, however, when the studies in question were published, funding disclosures and transparency standards were not the norm they are today.

Beyond this, it is challenging for us to comment on events that allegedly occurred 60 years ago, and on documents we have never seen.

Generally speaking, it is not only unfortunate but a disservice that industry-funded research is branded as tainted. What is often missing from the dialogue is that industry-funded research has been informative in addressing key issues.

We question this author's continued attempts to reframe historical occurrences to conveniently align with the currently trending anti-sugar narrative, particularly when the last several decades of research have concluded that sugar does not have a unique role in heart disease.

Most concerning is the growing use of headline-baiting articles to trump quality scientific research – we're disappointed to see a journal of JAMA's stature being drawn into this trend.

The Sugar Association is always seeking to further understand the role of sugar and health, but we rely on quality science and facts to drive our assertions."

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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