Big Sugar's Bitter Lie

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In the early 1960s, the Sugar Association underwrote a campaign to discredit fat.  I know that sounds absurd, but there really is a Sugar Association.  And it really went after fat.

John Hickson, a sugar-industry executive, funded research by Harvard scientists intended to defame fat to the advantage of carbohydrates, especially refined sugar.  The research was never intended to examine if one was less healthy than the other.  It was designed to make fat look scientifically unhealthy.

It began with the head of Harvard’s nutrition department at the time, Dr. Fredrick J. Stare, being bought by the sugar industry.  And then another Harvard scientist tied to this research, Dr. Mark Hegsted, was soon afterwards installed as the head of nutrition at the USDA, where in 1977 he helped draft the first official nutritional guidelines in the U.S.  Those guidelines recommended a “low-fat” diet, the first public use of this phrase in the history of humankind.  That’s criminal.  Especially given how essential food, including fat, is for one’s health.  You can read more about these recently published internal sugar industry documents, discovered by a University of California, San Francisco researcher and published in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) Internal Medicine.

The mean-spirited strategy was to scare people away from fat, a long lasting fuel, so that they would crave more carbohydrates, especially sugar.  Less fat meant more hunger, more sugar cravings and higher sales for Big Sugar.  Especially if eating fat was now being implicitly linked to obesity.

The same campaign is still very active today.  A New York Times article from 2015, “Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets” revealed that Coca-Cola has paid millions in research that attempts to downplay the link between sugary drinks and obesity.  Again, implying that fatty foods are the chief cause of obesity.

The U.S. government’s dietary guidelines still cling to out dated misinformation about saturated fat, wrongly accusing it of raising LDL and contributing to heart disease. Here, science has shown that saturated fat only raises the safe, fluffy LDL particles. It also increases HDL, which is beneficial for your heart.

The guidelines became and are still confusing because the basic premise is wrong. Dietary fat is indeed associated with heart disease, but it's the processed vegetable oils, which are loaded with trans fats and oxidized omega-6 fats, that are the problem, not saturated fats.  More on fat versus cholesterol coming soon in my next blog.

John Hickson, the sugar-industry executive behind this highly successful campaign, went on to lead Big Tobacco’s campaign to bury their incriminating research that showed that cigarettes had indeed been linked irrefutably for decades to multiple diseases including cancer.

Public perception has been manipulated to the point where many highly educated people still go for all the “low-fat” and “no-fat” propaganda.  I predict this will change in the next decade, partly because someone at Harvard Medical School has redeemed fat.

Published this past August, the article titled, “The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between,” begins with, “For years, fat was a four-letter word. We were urged to banish it from our diets whenever possible. We switched to low-fat foods. But the shift didn't make us healthier…”

This is going to take longer than exposing Big Tobacco because the lie has been told for so long.  And because sugar seems so benign given it’s association with holidays, celebrations and contentment.  It's a basic human flavour that’s been hybridized and distorted for profit. 

It can be argued from a Chinese Medicine perspective that sweet is the most primal flavour.  As the flavour of the Earth element, and hence the digestive organs, we first taste it in our mother’s milk.  In my last blog, “Home, Sweet Home: A Chinese Medicine Perspective On Sugar” I make the case that sugar addiction is tied to our relative lack of a sense of place. 

Chapter one of the 2,000 year old Chinese Medicine text, The Inner Treatise of the Yellow Emperor, is very clear that diet and exercise are paramount to good health.  And that furthermore, before acupuncture or herbs are used, dietary and exercise recommendations should be prescribed. 

Western Medicine began with a similar emphasis on the importance of food.  The father of Western Medicine, Hippocrates, was emphatic about food.  “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”  Yet most Medical Doctors admittedly don’t know much about nutrition, and many even deny its relevance.  In a tradition that today is morally underwritten by the oath, “do no harm”, I’d like to see food taken more seriously.