For some time, fat was the demon of the healthy eating world. You could find a low-fat option of literally anything at the grocery store. Companies touted them as healthier options while pumping them full of sugar to maintain the taste. Unsurprisingly, America got addicted to the white stuff—just in time to realize that it's actually been the enemy all along.
We've slowly been figuring out that "sugar is the new fat." Sugar is the number one ingredient that dietitians and nutritionists want you to nix, and it's being blamed for terrible skin, messed-up metabolisms, and increased risk of obesity and heart disease. Meanwhile, avocado, EVOO, and coconut oil are being praised for their healthy sources of fat and all the great things they can do for your body. So how exactly did we get to a position where fat was outlawed in the first place?
We officially have the answer: it's all been a sugar scam.
Recently released internal documents from the sugar industry show that about 50 years of research has been biased by the industry; in the 1960s, an industry trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation (now the Sugar Association) paid researchers to downplay the dietary hazards of sugar while pointing to saturated fat as the culprit for coronary heart disease, shaping the conversation around sugar for decades afterwards, according to new research published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.
In the early 1960s, there was mounting evidence demonstrating that a diet low in fat and high in sugar could cause in increase in serum cholesterol levels (a.k.a. the bad cholesterol that raises your risk of heart disease). In order to protect sugar sales and market shares, the Sugar Research Foundation commissioned D. Mark Hegsted, professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, to complete a research review that specifically downplayed the connection between sugar and coronary heart disease (CHD).
The review, "Dietary Fats, Carbohydrates and Atherosclerotic Disease," was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 1967, and concluded that "there was 'no doubt' that the only dietary intervention required to prevent CHD was to reduce dietary cholesterol and substitute polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat in the American diet," according to Monday's JAMA paper. In return, Hegsted and the other researchers were paid about $50,000 in today's dollars. At the time, the NEJM didn't require researchers to disclose funding sources or possible conflicts of interest (that started in 1984), so the sugar industry's behind-the-scenes influence was kept under wraps.
The scariest part is that the sugar scam didn't stay confined to the research world; Hegsted went on to become the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, where in 1977 he helped draft the forerunner to the federal government's dietary guidelines, according to the New York Times. Since then, the federal stance on nutrition (and sugar in particular) has stayed relatively stagnant. In fact, the USDA finally added a dietary recommendation to limit sugar intake in their 2015 update to the official dietary guidelines—about 60 years after evidence started popping up that showed what sugar was really doing to our bodies.
The good news is that research transparency standards are at least a little better today (though still not where they should be—just look at these cases of possibly fabricated red wine research) and that we're more in-the-know when it comes to sugar risks. If anything, it's also a reminder to take every bit of research with a grain of salt—er, sugar.