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Research Fraud: Why We Didn’t Know Sugar Can Cause Heart Disease

A fraud perpetrated by the sugar industry on the medical community has impacted the health of American Indians for nearly half a century.

A fraud perpetrated by the sugar industry on the medical community has impacted the health of American Indians and Alaska Natives for nearly half a century.

In the mid-1960s, the sugar industry paid three professors at the Harvard School of Public Health to write a report showing that fat and cholesterol, not sugar, were the main dietary causes of heart disease.

The report, published by the New England Journal of Medicine, was based on a review of existing studies of cardiovascular health and nutrition. The professors routinely rejected the studies showing a link between sugar consumption and cardiovascular disease (CVD), while using different criteria to accept as valid studies showing a link between fat consumption and CVD.

The deceit was discovered by Cristin E. Kearns, a researcher at the University of California San Francisco who examined documents discovered in the archives of Harvard University, the University of Illinois and other institutions. Her analysis, “Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents,” was published in August.

“A trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat,” wrote Kearns.

The Harvard report effectively dampened research on the link between sugar consumption and heart disease for 50 years.

According to the American Heart Association, it was not until 2014 that researchers published a study showing that too much added sugar could increase a person’s chances of dying from heart disease.

The study showed that people who got 17 to 21 percent of their calories from added sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than did those who got 8 percent of their calories from added sugar. The risk doubled for people who got more than 21 percent of their calories from added sugar.

Heart Disease and the AI/AN Community

Heart disease is a leading cause of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives. According to the Centers for Disease Control, which cites data from the late 1990s, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for AI/AN people. The Indian Health Service, looking at data from 1999-2009, finds heart disease the second leading cause of death among AI/AN people, after all cancers.

Dr. Tiffany Beckman, University of Minnesota Department of Medicine/Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism, explains how sugar may play a role in heart disease for AI/AN people. Beckman is an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and an adopted member of several other tribes.

“Excess sugar consumption has led to an epidemic of type 2 diabetes among American Indian and Alaska Native people and uncontrolled diabetes causes cardiovascular disease. Sugar also causes obesity when consumed in excess. That’s a problem because obesity is associated with reduced mobility and the cardiovascular system doesn’t get the proper workout,” she says.

“Also if someone consumes sugar and they have diabetes, they can get glycosylation end products and sort of a carmelization type of process that occurs inside the blood vessels,” she continues.

“Finally, if you consume too much sugar and the genetic risk is there, glucose can end up in places where it should not be. If excessive calories of sugar are consumed, it can get shunted through a number of metabolic pathways resulting in high cholesterol. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy is constant and that it cannot be created or destroyed, so if excess sugar, which is energy, comes into the system and it’s not burned or used, it gets stored as either fat (specifically high fructose corn syrup), glycogen in the liver, or hyperglycemia or high cholesterol in others with an at-risk genetic background,” Beckman explains.

She adds, “High fructose corn syrup causes de-novo hepatic lipogenesis so that fat is made in the liver instead of sugar and this storage of fat in liver can lead to fatty liver disease, which is a precursor to cirrhosis. In the body, the excess sugar, in the context of a hyper-caloric diet, can end up being stored as fat or adipose tissue.”

Avoiding Added Sugar

People who want to cut down on sugar consumption in order to improve their health need to know how to identify foods with a high sugar content.

Added sugars are those that manufacturers put in foods or drinks while they are being prepared or processed. Some examples of foods that contain added sugars are soft drinks, candy, cakes, cookies, pies, fruit punch or fruit ades, ice cream, sweetened milk drinks, jams and jellies, sweetened yogurt, energy drinks, coffee cake, muffins, bagels and many other breads.

Naturally-occurring sugars are those that are found in foods before they are processed. They are found in unprocessed fruit (fructose) and in milk (lactose).

The only way to know for sure if a food has added sugar is to read the list of ingredients. Look for the words maltose, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, corn sweetener, raw sugar, syrup, honey or fruit juice concentrates, all of which refer to added sugars. And of course cutting down on the sugar we add to our foods ourselves, as when we add cane sugar or honey to coffee or tea, breakfast cereal, toast and grapefruit, could help.

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Check ingredient lists for added sugar.