The Sugar Industry Paid Off Harvard Researchers. Could It Happen Again?

Regulations have improved since the Sugar Research Foundation influenced a major review, but risks remain.


Sugar photo via

The Sugar Research Foundation paid Harvard scientists to publish literature that minimized sugar’s connection to coronary heart disease, and instead cast doubts on saturated fat, according to documents published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine

Since they were published in 1967, the resulting Harvard reviews—comprising studies hand-picked by sugar industry officials, seen before release by those same officials, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) with no mention of Sugar Research Foundation funding—may have skewed years of nutritional recommendations, helping to make an entire nation wary of fat and addicted to sugar. “They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” one of the JAMA study authors, Stanton Glantz, told the New York Times

The debate is far from over, as Americans reel from years of low-fat, high-sugar eating—considered by some experts a major contributor to the obesity epidemic—and as scientists continue to search for nutritional consensus. But the Harvard incident raises another question: Could the same thing happen in today’s research arena?

Safeguards against such breaches have improved significantly since the ’60s, says Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Standards and rules have changed greatly. Fifty years ago, there were almost none,” he says. “Most journals [now] have policies about disclosure of financial support. Importantly, since the 1980s, the NEJM has had policies about who could write review articles, and they have not allowed this if a conflict of interest existed.”

Harvard Chan has its own conflict of interest guidelines, as do bodies such as the National Academies of Sciences. And while health reporting is still a work in progress, the media and the public have gotten better at reading the fine print.

Most contemporary researchers, including Willett, also acknowledge that publicly funded studies are preferable. “Ideally, all research would be publicly funded, so there would not be any conflict of interest,” he says. “But much research would not be happening without industry support, especially research aimed at development of drugs.”

(Willett, it’s worth noting, knew one of the scientists implicated in the new study, and defended his scruples in an interview with Stat, saying that he “very much doubt[s] that he changed what he believed or would conclude based on industry funding.”) 

Therein lies the problem: Scientific research is incredibly expensive, and industry funding can be attractive, even necessary, in moving it forward. According to the National Science Board, businesses account for 65 percent of all U.S. research and development (R&D) funding, though the vast majority of that goes toward financing business-specific R&D.

Corporate funding does still creep into health research, though. In July, a widely celebrated study, partially funded by pasta brand Barilla, suggested that pasta doesn’t make you fat. Coca-Cola has tried to play down sugar-sweetened beverages’ role in obesity. Candy makers paid for a study that claimed children who eat the confections weigh less than those who don’t. The list goes on.

Is that inherently bad? Some researchers don’t think so. The Center for Accountability in Science quotes David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, on the issue: “Lack of industry-funded research means less research, and slower progress,” he says. “That’s not the prize we are after.” A 2014 comment, based on research from the University of California and published in Natureeven argues that “corporate-sponsored research is surprisingly valuable for further innovation.”

Willett says industry-funded research isn’t automatically deplorable, but says it’s crucial to watch for weak science and compromised analyses.

“[Corporate-funded] research can be solid, but there is a serious potential for bias,” he says. “Mechanisms have been developed to try to minimize this, but we still need to be aware of the potential.”

Marion Nestle, a noted nutrition expert, argues that point in an editorial accompanying the JAMA study. Perhaps most poignantly, she calls for better sources of funding—or else, she implies, we may be at risk of history repeating itself:

Disclosure of funding sources helps but is not sufficient to address the potential conflicts that can occur with such funding. These 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.