Avoiding fat? Blame Big Sugar!

Posted on September 13, 2016

Stanton Glantz has been at the forefront of anti-tobacco campaigns since the 1970s. As Christopher Snowdon has noted, Glantz invented the notion of 'denormalisation' before it even had a name, made incredible claims about the dangers of secondhand smoke and regularly demands that smoking be removed not only from new films but should also be airbrushed from the history of cinema. In another era, he would considered the sort of monomaniac who would spend his days shouting at the traffic. In these illiberal times, however, he's considered a serious researcher, even holding the title of Truth Initiative Distinguished Professor of Tobacco Control at the University of California in San Francisco.

But the well of tobacco control is rapidly running dry. Apart from his ongoing, Stalinesque campaigns against Hollywood, he's largely achieved his aims, short of outright prohibition. Smoking is increasingly banned almost everywhere except our homes - even the streets are no longer safe. Tobacco companies have been rinsed for billions in lawsuits. Even branding on cigarettes is banned ever more widely.

So Glantz has been turning his attention to sugar instead. So it is that the New York Times credulously reports on new documents 'discovered' by Glantz that show that Big Sugar paid for researchers in prestigious institutions to turn the blame for chronic disease away from sugar and towards fat. In the late Sixties, it seems, three Harvard scientists were paid the equivalent of about $50,000 in today's money to publish a review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. 'Blame fat' was the conclusion of the paper, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. 'It was a very smart thing the sugar industry did, because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion', says Glantz.

In reality, the sugar industry need not have bothered. The war on fat was already well underway, launched by another loud and influential researcher, Ancel Keys, in the 1950s. It was Keys who blamed cholesterol for heart disease, put together some dubious international comparisons of disease rates comparing fat consumption and heart disease, and then won over various influential committees to back his claims. It's true that one of the authors of that Sixties paper, Mark Hegsted, went on to be the chief scientific adviser to Senator George McGovern's US Senate committee that produced the watershed report on the matter, Dietary Goals for the United States in 1977. That report really nailed fat, and saturated fat in particular, as the biggest risk to Americans' health after smoking. But for a Senate committee to reach that conclusion, there already had to be a scientific consensus in place blaming fat. The most high-profile anti-sugar academic of the era, Professor John Yudkin, was already treated as a fool, rightly or wrongly, in nutrition research circles.

What Glantz is appealing to - and no doubt believes - is that sugar is so obviously dangerous that it could only have been saved from public condemnation by an industry conspiracy. No wonder he is on good terms with today's most famous anti-sugar campaigner, his UCSF colleague Robert Lustig. In reality, the argument of the industry today - that there is no unique role for sugar in causing disease - remains the consensus. Sugar is seen by most experts as an unnecessary source of extra calories that leads us to put on weight, leading to disease, but there is nothing special about sugar in itself that means it should be specifically avoided.

Instead of avoiding fat or sugar, we would be better advised to avoid the junk science and conspiracy theories of Glantz and his ilk. If we don't, we will end up with even more of the illiberal and costly policies of anti-tobacco campaigns applied to our food.