A new study has revealed that in the 1950s and 1960s, the sugar industry funded research that downplayed sugar’s role in causing coronary heart disease, and instead shifted the focus onto dietary fat and cholesterol intake as the cause of CHD.
The study, conducted at Harvard University using publicly-available documents, found that, much like the influence that big tobacco had on scientific studies regarding the health effects of cigarettes, the Sugar Research Foundation (today called the Sugar Association) conducted a campaign in 1964 aimed at addressing negative public perception regarding sugar, in response to emerging medical research that implicated sugar’s role in promoting coronary heart disease (CHD).
In 1965, the group approved what they called "Project 226", which entailed paying for research to be conducted through Harvard University, specifically to influence public and scientific attitudes toward sugar’s effects on health. Their funding toward this endeavor eventually reached $600,000 ($5.3 million in 2016 dollars). The Sugar Research Foundation’s role in this matter went unnoticed until 1984, when the New England Journal of Medicine required studies to disclose their funding sources.
The study that resulted from Project 226, released in 1967, concluded that a reduction in cholesterol and saturated fats was the only way of reducing the risk of CHD through diet, while downplaying sugar’s role as a cause of the condition. These efforts successfully shifted the scientific focus throughout the following decades toward total fat intake as detrimental to cardiac health, with sugar’s role being largely ignored.
While the biological links still aren’t clear, more recent studies are beginning to show that there is a connection between excessive sugar intake and heart disease. Conversely, other studies are questioning whether fat and cholesterol intake actually have an effect on CHD.