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Sugar is good? Fat is bad? How the sugar lobby manipulated dietary recommendations

In the 1960s the idea that diet influenced heart disease was new, but there was a debate among experts about which was the culprit — fat or sugar. Health experts weren’t convinced that all fats were “bad” and even that far back some wanted to examine the role of sugar in the diet more closely. But in a paper published this past Tuesday in the journal PLOS Biology, researchers report that the sugar industry lobby shut down a study showing a clear and compelling link between high-sugar diets and high triglycerides. While Americans got the message that high-fat diets and heart disease were closely connected, sugars were given a sweet pass.

As reported on NPR, Stanton Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco likened the sugar industry’s manipulation of scientific data reporting to strategies employed by the tobacco industry, which discredited the negative health effects associated with smoking — the mission — “shift all of the blame onto fats.” In 1967, At least three Harvard scientists, selected by the “Sugar Research Foundation”, an industry-backed trade group, received substantial compensation —$50,000, a lot of money at the time – to publish favorable data associated with sugar consumption.

As reported in the L.A. Times, this “scientific group” published recommendations that concluded that, “… there was “no doubt” that reducing cholesterol and saturated fat was the only dietary intervention needed to prevent heart disease.” According to the JAMA report, the researchers overstated the consistency of the literature on fat and cholesterol while downplaying studies on sugar.

Mark Hegsted, one of the selected researchers, subsequently served as the head of nutrition for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and was instrumental in drafting the first U.S. dietary guidelines, which recommended cutting all fat in the diet, without putting a limit on sugar.

Researcher Cristin E. Kearns, a dentist, MBA, and postdoctoral fellow in the UCSF School of Medicine and her colleagues found evidence that the sugar industry backed studies that downplayed the role of sugar in the development of obesity and epidemics of diabetes and heart disease.  Instead, they demonized fat. Read more about Dr. Kearns in here.

Kearns concluded, “Policymaking committees should consider giving less weight to food industry-funded studies.” In this new review, it’s revealed that the Sugar Association worked to suppress scientific findings that linked excessive dietary sugar to increased risk for high triglycerides and heart disease and possible risk for bladder cancer. Read more from the PLOS Biology paper here. But, despite the sugar lobby’s efforts, researchers and policy makers have been pushing the USDA and health organizations throughout the world to restrict sugar, citing global studies pointing to the relationship between excessive sugars and soaring rates of obesity and related diseases. Article continues below graphic.


The 2015 USDA (U.S Department of Agriculture) dietary guidelines removes the blanket restriction of foods high in dietary cholesterol, such as eggs and shrimp, and for the first time puts a limit on added sugars. Far from demonizing all fats, for years dietitians and health experts have been advising that some fats are important for better health.

Fat is necessary for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.  Fat is a major source of energy, and essential for building cell membranes, for blood clotting, to reduce inflammation. All fats are not equal — avoid all trans fats (hydrogenated fat), but monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from fruits like olives and avocado and from seeds are linked to heart health; some saturated fat from plants like coconut oil may be healthful too, and in small amounts, from whole milk, cheese, and pasture-raised meats.

As reported on CNN Health, current U.S. guidelines recommend a “healthy eating pattern” with limited sugar and saturated fat, less salt and more vegetables and whole grains. Importantly, added sugars should not exceed 10% or less of your daily calories. Great Britain and the World Health Organization recommend a limit of 5%. If you’re eating a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet that’s about 50 grams, or 12 ½ teaspoons of added sugar. How did I calculate this? One teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams. Divide 50 grams by 4, about 12-½ teaspoons of added sugar.  One teaspoon of sugar has 16 calories. 12 ½ times 16 equals 200 calories — but, they’re “empty” ones, without nutritional value.

You’ve probably noticed that here in Ecuador people have a love affair with sugar. It is everywhere. From sodas to energy drinks to desserts, and most stealthy and persistently, in juices. Most almuerzos come with juice, and even 100% fruit juice has as much fructose (fruit sugar) as soda. Ecuadorian obesity rates are growing, more quickly in the younger population, and many experts link it to sugar, sugar, sugar. Adult and childhood obesity is noted to be a public health concern. Once considered a problem only in high-income countries, overweight and obesity are now dramatically on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings.

Be a Label Sleuth: Read the ingredients list first

In Ecuador, grams of added sugar is noted clearly on the Nutrition Facts label. And like Great Britain and other countries, Ecuadorian consumers don’t even have to flip the box or can over to read the sometimes-microscopic nutrition facts panel to know if something is high or low in sugar.  Right on the front of the package is the “traffic light” alert telling you if the product is a “go, slow, whoa” food, telling you at a glance if a product is alta (high-red), medio (medium-yellow), or bajo (low-green) in a particular nutrient. But it’s not so easy to be an educated consumer in the U.S. There’s no front-of-the-package information.

Even though the new approved nutrition facts label that separated out grams of added sugar were supposed to be in force in the U.S. by now, there’s been delay after delay.  Why?  Ask the Trump administration. Although many of the larger food companies have already listed “added sugars” on their product labels, the Trump administration has again delayed this major upgrade to the labels on our food. Read more here.

So, read the ingredient list first. Ingredients are listed in descending order — start with the ingredient that takes up the most volume or weight. If sugar is near the top of the list, the food is high in added sugars. And there are dozens of ways to say sugar!  Sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, glucose … any “ose” means sugar.  Cane sugar, honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, even organic sugar is just sugar, after all. Article continues below graphic.

And don’t be confused about carbohydrates vs. sugars. Although sugar is a carbohydrate, all carbohydrates do not contain added sugar. Yogurt is a good example. A cup of unsweetened, natural yogurt contains about 11 grams of carbohydrate, all from naturally occurring lactose. Since there is no added sugar in unsweetened, natural yogurt, the “sugars” line will also read just 11 grams of sugar. But in a sweetened yogurt, there may be double or triple the amount of carbohydrate, in the form of added sugar. Read my column about added sugars here.

Sugar is not poison. It is … sugar. It is sweet, it tastes good, it has calories, negligible or no nutrients, and humans have been enjoying it for thousands of years. Unrefined sweeteners like honey and maple syrup contain minute amounts of nutrients, but they’re not health foods, they are sweeteners.  Sugar won’t make you sick although too much sugar will make you sick.  When everything you drink is sweetened, then that’s what your taste buds expect. Some people call that a “craving” for sweet-tasting foods.

Take a peek at this 50 year-old video from Jack LaLanne, where he talks passionately (as usual!) about sugar. He is such a hoot! And he sure did know what he was talking about, all those years ago.


Business Insider. The Trump Administration is delaying a big change to nutrition labels that will make calories and sugars easier to see. New U.S. dietary guidelines limit sugar, rethink cholesterol. Independent. Ecuador to tax fast food in effort to halt soaring obesity rate. JAMA Internal Medicine.  Food Industry Funding of Nutritional Research. Science Now. Sugar industry funded research to cast doubt on sugar’s health hazards, report says. National Public Radio. What The Industry Knew About Sugar’s Health Effects, But Didn’t Tell Us. How the sugar industry shifted blame to fat. NHS Choices. How does sugar in our diet affect our health? PLOS Biology. Sugar industry sponsorship of germ-free rodent studies linking sucrose to hyperlipidemia and cancer: An historical analysis of internal documents.  Jack LaLanne “Sugarholics”.

18 thoughts on “Sugar is good? Fat is bad? How the sugar lobby manipulated dietary recommendations

  1. Another bad side of sugar is how they grow it in Florida. After each harvest they burn the old plants off . This results in burning the top soil off . There is about 11″ of this and it rapidly depletes. What is left is Coral which can no longer be used and is sold off for housing. They are ruining acre after acre of precious land

    1. I’ve never heard of topsoil “burning”. Can you provide a reference that would support your assertion?

      I can’t speak for Florida, specifically, but I think you may be misinformed about the process of growing and harvesting sugar even there. In Hawaii, the ripe cane was burned in order to reduce the biomass of the harvest, thus making it easier and less expensive to harvest. I would be surprised if the process is any different in Florida. That is to say, your notion that the cane is burned after the harvest seems impossible to me. Have you ever actually been in a cane field during the harvest?

      Regardless of the effect of burning the cane on the soil, it is inarguable that the burning creates tremendous air pollution. In Hawaii this was ignored for many decades due to the power of the sugar lobby. If you ever witnessed this on Oahu, you would know that the sugar cane fields were directly adjacent to populated areas. Normally, when the North East Tradewinds were blowing the the pollution was minimized but still there. When the trades abated (during what we call “Kona weather”) they continued burning the cane to harvest it and the pollution was unbearable.

      For better of worse, the never ending quest for development of housing has made sugar production on Oahu a thing of the past. Here is an article that will explain why this has happened:

      1. “I’ve never heard of topsoil ‘burning’.”

        Go to any internet search engine and type in “burning topsoil”. (You can even misspell it!) That will give you all the references you desire. Otherwise people might think you are not very knowledgeable and gratuitously combative. Search engines will even provide you with images and videos of the practice.

    2. Soil isn’t combustible, thus it can’t be said to burn. That said, fire above soil can be beneficial:

      “Though fire can diminish nutrient pool sizes, nutrient availability often increases. Soil fertility can increase after low intensity fires since fire chemically converts nutrients bound in dead plant tissues and the soil surface to more available forms or the fire indirectly increases mineralization rates through its impacts on soil microorganisms (Schoch and Binkley 1986)”

  2. This is blasphemous: “Ecuadorian obesity rates are growing, more quickly in the younger population, and many experts link it to sugar, sugar, sugar.

    Donald the attorney assured us that there are no fat Ecuadorians. Who is a man to believe?

    1. Even people who have experienced a low or an uncertain calorie intake for as little as 2 years as infants (let alone many generations of that condition) are as much as 166 times more likely to be obese by early adulthood. The human metabolism adjusts to reality and over time, over develops the ability to store calories. As Ecuador becomes wealthier and calorie availability goes through the roof, people become obese. This will vary and be most remarkable in the areas which were formerly the poorest.

      1. Not just infancy. The data shows that malnutrition during the third trimester of fetal development programs the body’s metabolism to store more energy. It’s called an epigenetic effect, in which environmental conditions turn certain genes on or off.

        Populations that experience economic growth like Ecuador has in recent decades go through an epidemiological transition, essentially what we call “first world problems”. Obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome overtake the third-world problems of infectious diseases to become the leading population health issues. Mexico is a very good example of this phenomenon. Ecuador is a couple decades behind Mexico but if you want a good canary in the coal mine for what’s coming, just take a look at the province of Galapagos. They have the highest per capita incomes in the country and, not surprisingly, their health indicators resemble those of North America.

        Unfortunately, Ecuador has only had one National Health and Nutrition Survey this century and as far as I know, there are no current plans to do the next one. Most countries do one every 5 years. The 2012 survey was the first in almost 30 years so the data is too sporadic to really identify trends and plan interventions.

  3. Another great article, Susan. You are much appreciated.

    Jack LaLanne lived to be ~97. He mesmerized me as a kid. Many fond memories there.

  4. As usual, Susan March exposes the myths created by lobbyists surrounding the nutrition industry and gives us the actual independent scientific facts about nutrition. This also explains why I am not regarded by some as sweet: I have no “added sugar”. Thank you, Susan!

    1. I just read before writing this from a reputable source that cane sugar is not poison. There is hard evidence in the last 10 years it is indeed an accelerant to the detriment of one’s physiology when consumed in any portion, which is sad. In “normal” usage it is in so much food, if not most, non-confectionary, packaged food. Figures vary but 66 pounds per person or thereabouts is figured for annual consumption in the U.S. (Hint: stay only on the perimeter of the inside of the grocery store.)

  5. I can see a flood of posts coming on to this subject. This one post is a flood, but this narrow subject has-–with no exaggeration–enormous leverage related to healthfulness. I promise you from experience there will be understatements and overstatements on the pros and cons of honey and outright untruths founded on ignorance, not bias and probably not by any lobbyists among us promoting the cane sugar industry…lol.

    I have an unofficial PhD on the subject of honey….empirically. Disclosure: I am an advocate of honey and very much an opponent of cane sugar, the latter protected by an incredibly large and insidious industry that in some significant measures protecting and advancing sugar by corruption. This act has added to the wide- scale demise of fitness in the U.S. Honey harvesters traditionally have had rare coverage in support of their “crop” and without the bucks to corrupt.

    In the first 15 to 20 years of the internet’s wide usage, the amount of subject material on honey was a thimble full compared to today. You can say search engines have gotten better, but honestly, in pre-internet days little could be found on the scope and depth of honey’s unique content and benefits compared to cane. I had to dig for it. (Remember the so-called “better-for-you” brown sugar is just caramelized white cane sugar.) I have found “tree” syrup justifiably to have its place. In addition, I was in recently stunned by stevia getting a very serious hit from what appeared to be an unimpunable source. (Fake news ?)

    My story about honey is long, starting at age 16 finding my teenagers’ habit-inflicted case of acne turned around in part by substituting honey for sugar. In fact it was so remarkable it made me become in 1963 frequently referred to as a “health nut” – a popular chide for eating healthfully until the 1980’s when the term faded. I have been frequently misjudged for being much younger than I am, and there is no parallel to that in my family’s older or younger generations. All of my family, like me, seems to have a sweet tooth, with the obvious difference being it is cane and I am honey

    I just read before writing this from a reputable source that cane sugar is not poison. There is hard evidence in the last 10 years it is indeed an accelerant to the detriment of one’s physiology when consumed in any portion, which is sad. In “normal” usage it is in so much food, if not most, non-confectionary, packaged food. Figures vary but 66 pounds per person or thereabouts is figured for annual consumption in the U.S. (Hint: stay only on the perimeter of the inside of the grocery store.)

    Finally, but not the last on honey, its utility topically for the benefits to skin (hygroscopicity), and separately, for the protective cover and faster healing of wounds (enzymes and nectar/bee derived sugar) is nothing short of remarkable, especially compared to the toxicity of commonly used topicals to disinfect and deter pathogens. I read today from one article its chemistry includes a hydrogen peroxide, which is a first find for me and very hard to believe.

    Different subject: in the last half dozen years, bee venom therapy information and its credibility has grown leaps. Bee keepers are famous for having none to little arthritis. It is believed to have a benign, steroidal effect for relief and allowing the dynamics of body physiology be better relieved for this, allowing body self promotion of repair or at least keeping the bad stalemated.

    Go bees !


  6. In developed nations (outside the US), most forms of lobbying are illegal…akin to bribing officials and politicians and carrying the same penalties. However, the US is an exception, so it is understandably confusing to figure out fact from fiction.

  7. Great article. My mother watched and adored Jack Lalane but I was not that familiar with his wisdom. I recognize now she did use a lot of his ideas in feeding us kids and no one has weight or heart issues @ ages 42-61yrs.

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