The abundance of packaged foods with the phrase “low-fat” on them show that Americans place a strong emphasis on avoiding saturated fat. Ostensibly, it makes sense to do so in a country with high rates of obesity and heart disease. However, the scientific evidence has suggested that sugar, not fat, leads to obesity and heart attacks. Moreover, the people responsible for perpetuating this myth are the leaders in the food and drink industry, such as the Coca-Cola company.
When President Eisenhower suffered from a heart attack in 1955, he insisted that the public be given the details of his illness. The next day, his chief physician, Dr. Paul Dudley White, gave a press conference citing smoking, fat and cholesterol as the primary sources of heart disease. Later, White introduced the research of a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota, Ancel Keys, who alleviated the worries of many Americans by suggesting the “diet-heart hypothesis.” According to Keys, saturated fat raises cholesterol by congealing within coronary arteries, stopping blood flow and causing the heart to seize up. By 1980, the low-fat approach became an ideology promoted by the media, physicians and the government’s Dietary Guidelines, which encouraged consumers to reduce their intake of saturated fats. But instead of showing health improvements, the 1980s marked the beginning of America’s obesity epidemic (The Guardian, “The sugar conspiracy,” 04.07.2016).
British scientist John Yudkin was amongst those who doubted Keys’ theory. He suspected that sugar played a larger role than fat in heart disease. Yudkin conducted a series of experiments on animals and humans and found that the body processes sugar in the liver, where it turns into fat before it enters the bloodstream. In addition, saturated fats have served as an essential component in our diet throughout history and are found in breast milk. In contrast, sugar was introduced in the Western diet only 300 years ago. However, in response to Yudkin’s claims, Keys frequently publicly humiliated him and his work, causing scientific institutions and the public to dismiss his findings (The Guardian, “The sugar conspiracy,” 04.07.2016).
In actuality, Keys based his theories on skewed data. Critics have pointed out that his study on the diets, lifestyles and health of 12,770 middle-aged men in Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Finland, Netherlands, Japan and the United States—which demonstrated a correlation between saturated fat intake and death from heart disease—showed signs of data manipulation. For example, there was no objective basis for the countries he chose; Keys left out France and what was at the time West Germany, most likely because the French and Germans had diets high in saturated fats, yet demonstrated relatively low rates of heart disease. Furthermore, Keys and his successors used a method known as epidemiological research, which measures the distribution of viral infections and associated risk factors in populations in terms of person, place and time. Although this method is usually used to study infections, Keys used it to gather data on chronic diseases. However, chronic diseases take a long time to develop and consist of hundreds of different factors, meaning that their chosen method was not very accurate. Years later, the study’s lead researcher in Italy, Alessandro Menotti, looked at the data again and concluded that the food that correlated most closely with deaths from heart disease was sugar (The Guardian, “The sugar conspiracy,” 04.07.2016).
However, despite evidence that shows otherwise, fat has remained the villain in the battle against obesity, largely due to the machinations of the sugar industry. Newly released documents show that sugar companies paid scientists in the 1960s to underplay the role of sugar in heart disease, exposing how the sugar industry shaped the resulting research on nutrition. A trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, now called the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 (adjusted for inflation) to publish a research review on sugar, fat and heart disease that minimized the link between sugar and heart health (The New York Times, “How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat,” 09.12.2016).
Today, Coca-Cola continues to fund scientific organisations in order to blame lack of exercise and foods high in saturated-fat as the reasons for heart disease and obesity. In 2004, the company funded its own research institutes called the “Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness” which focused on the role of sugar in beverages being used for “hydration” and “energy balance.” Although the institute disbanded in 2016, Coca-Cola continues to fund other organisations that promote a similar message. In 2015, the company gave $1 million to the University of Colorado Foundation to fund the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), whose aim was to provide “a forum for scientists around the globe to come together and generate the knowledge and evidence-based pathways needed to end obesity.” However, as a condition of the arrangement, Coca-Cola selected the executives of GEBN and defined its mission statement. Furthermore, co-founder and president of the GEBN James O’Hill had financial ties to PepsiCo, McDonald’s and The Sugar Association. Coca-Cola also provided $4 million in research funds to two of the founding members of GEBN (Union of Concerned Scientists, “How Coca-Cola Disguised Its Influence on Science about Sugar and Health”).
A video announcing GEBN featured the group’s vice president, exercise scientist Steven N. Blair, stating, “Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is…blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on. And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that, in fact, is the cause” (The New York Times, “Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away from Bad Diets,” 08.09.2015). Evidently, this is not the case, as numerous studies have demonstrated the significance of diet in a healthy lifestyle. This demonstrates the underlying motives that GEBN has in shifting focus away from the contribution corporations like Coca-Cola make to the unhealthy choices of a lot of the population.
Ultimately, rather than focusing on reducing our saturated fat intake, we should pay more attention to our sugar consumption. The proliferation of these myths surrounding our health and lifestyle highlight a significant message in demonstrating caution over what we consider as the truth. Furthermore, we should consider who is responsible for spreading such information.