HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Sly Sugar Fairy

Sugar or fat? What wreaks more havoc on your heart? Decades ago, scientists blamed fat. Heeding the experts, we have been gobbling low-fat goodies ever since.

Decades ago scientists lied to us.

Americans are a cynical bunch. Our politicians have inured us. They routinely lie. We blundered into Iraq, seeking hidden weapons of mass destruction. During this campaign, Donald Trump has thrown out absurd factoids: 40% of Americans are unemployed; hordes of immigrants are criminals. He proclaims his wealth; but is he a billionaire? Or a scantily-clad Emperor, whose wealth is illusory? Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, her ties to the corporations that fueled her wealth, and her open door to Clinton Foundation donors rank well below the egregious lies of her opponent – the new word for lies, as for warfare, is “equivalence” – but neither candidate is the Truth-Teller.

On the health front, we know to distrust tobacco companies, which squelched the early data that tobacco, whatever it did to your mood, wrecked your lungs. We know too that pharmaceutical companies sometimes put profits above the public benefit. Indeed, the scandal-du-jour is the opioid lobby: even while deaths from addiction soar, industry lobbyists kill states’ legislative efforts to stem the epidemic.

Deep in my cynical psyche, though, I still trust the nation’s best-and-brightest scientists to ferret out the truth, as they see it. They may be wrong; scientists continually re-test hypotheses, refine data, reformulate the wisdom-of-the-moment. But I want to believe they are heeding basic tenets of honest research – that a greedy puppeteer is not pulling their strings.

Until now.

Sixty years ago the “sugar” industry recognized a great market-opportunity: if Americans could think that “fat,” not sugar, was a dietary villain, Americans would avoid fat and embrace sugar.

But the industry spotted a scary specter on its business-plan horizon: research linked sugar to cardiac disease. What to do? Simple! Generate alternative research.

With $50,000, the Sugar Research Foundation sponsored a literature review by esteemed researchers (one from Harvard’s Public Health nutrition department). They looked at the past studies, found them suspect. If rats fed on sugar died, so what? People were not rats. If diets high in vegetables proved healthy, so what? Americans were not going to embrace kale. The studies probing the effects of fat did not draw the same scrutiny. The happy conclusion: sugar did not lead to heart disease. For the industry, it was $50,000 well-spent. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine (1967) gave the imprimatur to the research. At the time, researchers did not need to reveal their funders.

The result: an industry of non-fat foods emerged. And sugar – from candy to the panoply of sweetened sodas – retained its healthy returns. In fact, Congress subsidizes that agricultural sector.

A post-doctoral fellow, plumbing the archives at several universities, including Harvard, discovered the financial patronage of the sugar industry to these happy results.

Today, we cynical Americans easily discount the self-serving claims from the sugar industry. Regardless of the rhetoric, nobody believes that candy or soda is healthy; we recognize them not as empty calories, but as harmful. An obesity epidemic has frightened us.

Yet cynicism has a price: we are now too ready to distrust any evidence as tainted, geared to bolster the financial health of an industry, not our health. Are statins beneficial? Are childhood vaccinations necessary? Should we jog? Are vitamins necessary, superfluous, or harmful? Does a “medical-industrial” complex shape our physicians’ prescriptions and regimens?

Justice Louis Brandeis’ “sunshine” rule helps: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Today, researchers routinely acknowledge their funders. Presumably, if we know who funded the research behind the medical fiats, we know what to reject. Yet, realistically, private industry funds much medical research.

The solution is clear: let us, the taxpayers, fund more research. Let us beef up funds for the National Institutes of Health; let government spur the crucial clinical trials. The private sector heeds their stockholders; the government should heed us.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2016

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2016 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652