Food is 21st century snake oil.
This isn’t a new observation but one that food hucksters continue to enforce with ever more audacious claims – and all for a price.
And universities, with all their pomposity, especially Haaarrrvvvard, can suck.
Retailers promote scientific nonsense by exploiting consumer fears. Hence G Organic, a version of Gatorade that will be made with sugar from organically farmed sugarcane and carry a label whose largest word is a sprawling “ORGANIC.”
James Hamblin of The Atlantic notes the market for products labeled “organic” has exploded in recent years, to $43.3 billion in the U.S. alone in 2015. Marketing to capitalize on that demand sometimes confuses consumers into thinking that organically-produced products are healthier for us, a hope that has not born out. As dietician Lisa Cimperman told NPR, “I think it’s a marketing ploy to apply this organic health halo to this product.”
Executives from PepsiCo have implied as much. According to PepsiCo executives in Ad Age, the approach is an attempt to reach the growing market of consumers who seek out the term. The company is responding to pressure from challengers like coconut water, “as consumers are focused more than ever on ingredients.”
A socially conscious cerebral cortex may be drawn to organically farmed sugar over inorganically farmed sugar, but a pancreas makes no such distinction. It releases insulin in both cases, spreading word throughout the body that this is a time of fantastic abundance. The insulin signals the body to save and pack these calories away in fat cells, for use when food is scarce. For most Americans, that scarcity never arrives. All that does is more food.
For serious athletes doing prolonged exercise—the sort that drains their blood sugar, and depletes their sodium stores as they soak themselves in sweat—adding some sugar and sodium back into the mix does help to keep a person moving. This is why Gatorade was useful to the University of Florida’s football players, who were succumbing to heat exhaustion after hours of summer practice, when the product came into existence in 1965.
Still, the sugar content in Gatorade Thirst Quencher today is much too high, and the sodium content much too low, to re-hydrate a truly dehydrated person. Properly balanced oral rehydration solutions do exist, but they don’t taste as good to most people as the much sweeter concoctions.
Most of Gatorade’s $3.3 billion in annual sales come from consumers in much less extreme circumstances, where it is simply empty calories. The product is positioned as an optimal approach to hydration—to quenching thirst. This is purportedly because of the “electrolytes” (meaning a bit of sodium and potassium), but for people who eat food, these additives are moot. A serving of Gatorade Thirst Quencher has about as much sodium as a slice of bread.
But Gatorade Organic (G Organic sounds too much like a sexual act) is only the latest.
Anahad O’Connor of The New York Times reports the sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead, newly released historical documents show.
The internal sugar industry documents, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease — including many of today’s dietary recommendations — may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.
“They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C.S.F. and an author of the new JAMA paper.
The documents show that 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 sugar, fat and heart research. 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.
The Harvard scientists and the sugar executives with whom they collaborated are no longer alive. One of the scientists who was paid by the sugar industry was D. Mark Hegsted, who went on to become the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, where in 1977 he helped draft the forerunner to the federal government’s dietary guidelines. Another scientist was Fredrick J. Stare, the chairman of Harvard’s nutrition department.
In a statement responding to the JAMA report, the Sugar Association said that the 1967 review was published at a time when medical journals didn’t typically require researchers to disclose funding sources or potential financial conflicts of interest. The New England Journal of Medicine did not begin to require financial disclosures until 1984.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, wrote an editorial accompanying the new paper that said the documents provided “compelling evidence” that the sugar industry initiated research “expressly to exonerate sugar as a major risk factor for coronary heart disease.”
“I think it’s appalling,” she said. “You just never see examples that are this blatant. The amount of money they were paid to do this is staggering.”
Actually, $50,000 is nothing.
Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that academic conflict-of-interest rules have changed significantly since the 1960s, but the industry papers are a reminder of “why research should be supported by public funding rather than depending on industry funding.”
Full transparency is much better: why ding taxpayers for the cost of proving something.
And most nutritional research is bullshit anyway.
The JAMA paper relied on thousands of pages of correspondence and other documents that Cristin E. Kearns, a postdoctoral fellow at U.C.S.F., discovered in archives at Harvard, the University of Illinois and other libraries.
The documents show that in 1964, John Hickson, a top sugar industry executive, discussed a plan with others in the industry to shift public opinion “through our research and information and legislative programs.”
At the time, studies had begun pointing to a relationship between high-sugar diets and the country’s high rates of heart disease. At the same time, other scientists, including the prominent Minnesota physiologist Ancel Keys, were investigating a competing theory that it was saturated fat and dietary cholesterol that posed the biggest risk for heart disease.
Mr. Hickson proposed countering the alarming findings on sugar with industry-funded research. “Then we can publish the data and refute our detractors,” he wrote.
In 1965, Mr. Hickson enlisted the Harvard researchers to write a review that would debunk the anti-sugar studies. He paid them a total of $6,500 – the equivalent of $49,000 today. Mr. Hickson selected the papers for them to review and made it clear he wanted the result to favor sugar.
I’m proud to have taken industry money: and to tell them how fucking wrong they were, when it was the right, evidence-based conclusion.