A leading newspaper blew the lid on this so long ago, and news of it spread so fast, this particular item fell from outrageous story to another common piece of knowledge that makes us slightly uncomfortable with pretty alarming speed. Rather than call the people who duped us out for doing the duping, we all collectively shrugged our shoulders and filed it away in our own mental category that may well be labeled Thoughts that hurt to think.
It’s a great title for a mental category, after all.
Plenty of people got on the sugar soapbox before we found out the scientists lied to us about it, and we all kind of knew it was bad for us. Most of us even knew that high fructose corn syrup was like sugar squared, while facing the simple reality that avoiding it in our culture is only slightly easier than avoiding sand in the desert. Unfortunately, a lot of folks thought they could offset their sugar consumption by avoiding fats. That’s where the study in which scientists were paid to lie to us really got us off track as a nation, diet-wise.
If you need me to sum up the situation, I’ll go ahead and do the best I can in a few short sentences. The New York Times reported a while ago that a certain study had been commissioned by the sugar pushers way back in the sixties; they conspired to make fat the villain in the growing epidemic of heart problems, by publishing a study indicating that fat brought you to the doctor while sugar only sent you to the dentist. To be fair, the scientists had sort of expected to find what they were looking for: they thought fat was bad for you, and sugar was a little extra something it didn’t hurt to tack on once in awhile.
When I first heard about this, I thought the money these scientists received was a bribe. Whether it was because I heard it wrong or it was presented in a skewed fashion, I don’t know; memories only go back so far in my head, and tend in certain directions; even then, they can be highly unreliable. After actually reading the article so many people talked about for a little while there, I realized the money wasn’t really a bribe so much as it was payment to conduct a study. The people funding the study wanted to make sure the people publishing it were going to find what they wanted them to, and the discovery of the correspondence setting all this up and seeing it through is what was deemed article worthy.
The article pointed out that the people funding these studies didn’t have to disclose their identity, back in the days when this happened. Since a law has been passed in the interim requiring said disclosure, we’re apparently supposed to relax and start to trust these studies when they come out now. However, any intelligent person knows that crooks can still be crooks even when the law says they can’t, and the really clever ones can figure out ways to lie and cheat without even breaking any laws. These are scientists, politicians, and corporations we’re talking about, after all; assuming they can’t think their way around the law is like assuming a safe you buy in a hardware store can’t be cracked.
What a fine analogy, if I do say so myself: most of us have seen movies where the newest baddest safe comes up against the educated criminal. As long as they know what they’re doing, there’s always a way into a safe without knowing the combination. Even if America has more laws than any country in history, all that means is that we realize how hard it is to cover all your bases legally. Writing a law means you are writing loopholes even if you don’t mean to, and you need to try to close them as they get exploited; and pretty soon you have so many laws that everyone has to worry about getting convicted of something.
Unless you have cash, or influence. Then they just hand you the combination and let you go your merry way.
Which brings us back to the study in question. Sugar was starting to get a bad rap back in the sixties, and the people peddling it were hoping to sway public opinion in their favor. They specifically asked three scientists to report that fat was the leading cause of heart disease, and that sugar was not the culprit in this rising epidemic. Lots of people were starting to call out sugar for this widespread phenomenon, and they wanted a study that contradicted those accusations.
You might think this was a great opportunity for those scientists, as far as financial windfalls go; but it really wasn’t. Three guys were paid $6500 to say what they were told to say, and that was the total sum for all three of them. Even if you account for inflation, that was only about fifty thousand dollars in today’s money; split three ways, it was hardly a life-changing sum for any of them. You might think having fifteen to twenty grand would be nice, but would you risk your professional reputation on it? Especially if you’re…well, you know, a scientist?
Yeah, maybe. After all, who is going to pay for a study to be done in a field where they have no interests? Why would the airline industry pay for a study on sugar, or vice versa? And how do you keep getting funding for studies, if you get a reputation for not doing what you’re told? It’s all well and good to say that these studies should be publicly funded, but that means even more taxes; and with many forms of bribery being considered legal in this country, that just means the same old results plus greater financial burden on the common taxpayer. I don’t know if you’ve been keeping track, but the common taxpayer in this country is in no position to have more of their money thrown around. How can scientists get funded, if not by the people most invested in their results?
I don’t know, and neither did these scientists. Rather than get blackballed for lying, they all went on about their business after the study was published. One eventually became the head of nutrition at the USDA, and another became the chairman of Harvard’s nutrition department. The third one apparently didn’t make quite as indelible of a mark on our eating habits as a nation, other than the study in question; he received no further mention in the article.
Since the correspondence that revealed all this didn’t get turned up until after all the parties involved had died, there was really no direction anyone could point a finger. The fact that they communicated so openly about their intentions may be a source of dismay for some people, but I think it’s better to have that clear paper trail. What didn’t get discussed back then was the possibility that different types of sugars and fats might have different effects from each other. That’s probably because there are more types of sugars and fats now than there were back then; out of necessity, that has become a part of any real conversation about sugar and the effects it has had on American culture and collective body type.
High fructose corn syrup is different than simple natural sugars, just as trans fat is different from other fats; but there are categories within categories as well. The government is making trans fat illegal in certain forms, although they are giving companies until June of this year to actually get it out of their foods; but it can’t be avoided in its natural form, and there’s no reason to. Like most food products, there are natural and artificial versions of trans fat. Rather than go after each individual ingredient in processed foods, we might eventually have to wave a white flag and admit the processing is the problem.
Very few people seem to have any dietary difficulty when eating fruits and vegetables and meats fresh from natural sources, but we do have a problem when it comes to getting that kind of food into densely populated areas. Packaged products are way easier to ship and store, and the shelf life on some of the things meant for eating can be a little scary when you think about it. But what else do you do, in a place where apartment complexes are more plentiful than farms? If everyone in the greater Los Angeles area went out and bought an avocado right now, there would be a shortage and a resulting price bump with the next shipment. We actually need most people to be eating processed foods; if everyone started eating healthy, all those farms in Northern California couldn’t keep up.
They would try, though. One of the methods they would use has gotten a pretty bad rap with a certain type of person, but that’s mostly just a misunderstanding. Genetic modification is like pretty much any other thing you can think of; it has a good side, and it has a bad side. Then it has a bunch of grey area that people operate within for various reasons, and those shifting shades are not as easy to dismiss as someone seeing it from a black and white perspective might like them to be.
The fact of the matter is that someone genetically modified some aspect of every single thing available to eat today, and we should all be grateful for their efforts. By the same token, some of the people doing the modifying have had less than altruistic motivations; and we should be aware of that, as well. I think the first point has to be made before the second can be properly processed, which is why I summed it up into a snappy title for next week’s blog. We’ll call it…
‘All food is genetically modified!’
We’ll talk about that next week, in a post by that name.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,