Last week, a New York Times article detailed the story of a literature review in JAMA which claimed that Big Sugar in the 1960s and onward was a lot like Big Tobacco. And it hinted that scholars who denied that sugar was some special cause of obesity and stated fat might be more of an issue were manipulating the science. Even Professor Fred Stare, the founder of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard and a co-founder of the American Council on Science and Health, must have been on the take from Big Sugar.
Wow, one paper in the 1960s that matched the beliefs of just about every scientist killed fat and turned sugar into a hero? And one co-author did all that for $500? It's good to be skeptical for many reasons.
First, here is a dirty secret the public may not be aware of; scientists get grants because of work they have already done, and so do-nonprofits. People donate when you share their values. NRDC has a whole lot of donors from Google because they have a very rich Google insider on their Board, and that leads to a whole lot of Google employee donations. Technically, Natural Resources Defense Council can claim they don't get money from a corporation like Google, but no one is fooled, they get millions each year. Google shares the values of NRDC and NRDC is never critical of Google, so if you are of a conspiratorial mindset, you could correlate NRDC's lack of criticism of Google to its millions of dollars in donations each year from company insiders. You could also claim that anti-science groups get such high prominence on the front page of Google about us because we are pro-science, the antithesis of NRDC, and they have made no secret that they are willing to engage in dirty tricks to win.
That's the thinking behind the JAMA article and the media pieces about it. It's a false narrative but an easy one. It requires no critical thinking, it is instead what we now call "churnalism", where journalists just write about new press releases, and if it's an observational study or says scientists are corrupt, even better. Throw in a comment from Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Marion Nestle, both of whom are go-to sources for the kind of food scaremongering that the Council was created to protect the public from, and it writes itself.
That doesn't make it legitimate.
Like us, Professor Stare was from another era, when nutrition experts were expected to be practical guides, not food ideologues creating a lofty ideal that only two percent of the public could ever meet. That bugs modern food pundits who are mostly interested in new claims they can cobble together into a book.
We knew Stare as well as anyone in science circles but I have no particular reason to defend him or anything he did 38 years ago. The founders of Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood and Environmental Defense Fund were all eugenicists who thought poor people were vermin and should be aborted, sterilized and birth controlled to optimize humanity's future. They have a nasty legacy to live down. By comparison, a guy noting that modest amounts of sugar were not harmful while saturated fat might be a problem is hardly an ethical concern.
The bigger question is, why is Dr. Stan Glantz, the senior author of the JAMA paper from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), suddenly pretending it is? Who also "tries to shift public opinion “through our research and information and legislative programs”"? Stan Glantz, and every environmental group and every consumer group of any kind. He suggests that $6,500 was swaying health academics into defending sugar and making fat a scapegoat. If $6,500 changes scientists, what would $399,000 do? Glantz will have to answer that one, since he is the one who got that much from a corporation that very much wanted to undermine their competitors.
Instead of being lured by money, Fred Stare was a co-author on "Panic In The Pantry" in 1976 precisely because he saw the discourse had been hijacked by groups out to scare people about food - not just sugar, but eggs, cheese, bacon, salt, various chemicals; you name it and some faux consumer advocacy group had discovered that calling for a ban was a great way to raise money. It's no surprise that in such a climate organizations making those foods wanted to make sure anyone speaking common sense stayed in existence and in the 1980s they made donations here.
Did it change anything? Not in the least. Fred Stare didn't suddenly switch from being an organic-loving vegan sugar-hater to saying sugar and butter in moderation was safe, he had always said that. If he had been anti-sugar and offered to change, no one would have listened to him. Science shows shills are actually terrible for credibility and everyone knows it. Here's a more obvious example; imagine if the Rolling Stones suddenly needed a new guitarist, and you wrote them saying, "I am not a great guitarist but I will pretend to be one if you pay me, I will air guitar every Rolling Stones song faithfully, and say nice things to reporters about the band."
They'd never call you. They don't want shills, a band wants to know you can play guitar.
So it goes with science.
Despite the conspiratorial tone in JAMA and, more importantly, the New York Times, rarely is anyone "buying off" researchers. If so, Glantz is going to have to deal with some awkward questions of his own about funding. More on that in a bit. Along with Drs. Norm Borlaug and Elizabeth Whelan, Professor Stare is right here in the Founder's Circle of the American Council on Science and Health and my predecessor, Dr. Beth Whelan, couldn't say enough good things about him.
Shills don't command that kind of loyalty and respect.
ACSH was not being bought off by Big Sugar. Instead, like United Way, the American Heart Association, Mother Jones, or anyone else, we will take a check from any group that wants to send it, and that includes corporations, there just can't be any strings attached. Looking back through our funding history, there are numerous times where companies involved with sugar gave us grants. And why wouldn't they? In a sea of organizations simultaneously promoting miracle vegetables of the week and scaremongering food, we have 38 years of consumer advocacy and being a lighthouse of science and reason. I am baffled that more companies aren't lining up to give us checks (we don't get any money from candy or "sugar" companies, if you're wondering), because we're pretty much the only evidence-based group that reaches millions of people on a national scale.(1) Instead of companies, the bulk of our funding comes from foundations and individuals, and foundations know how hard it is to raise money being pro-science. They ask me about our struggles and I tell them, "Yes, 'your food is safe' is a terrible fundraising call to action."
Scaring people is, however, a great call to action. That's why anti-science groups are a $1 billion industry. We can't afford to take out full-page ads in the New York Times, but Natural Resources Defense Council does that routinely.
And scaring people is the stock-in-trade of Dr. Glantz, and it may help explain the latest sugar conspiracy.
Glantz had been a long-time ally of the Council, we were fighting together in a war on cigarettes, but that changed when he migrated into a war on companies. We don't much care what business tobacco companies get into in the future, we just want them out of cigarettes. If they want to move into nicotine gums, patches, or e-cigarettes, that's fine, none of those products are perfect, but Red Bull energy drinks are pretty terrible for you also - and motocross racing has a lot of risk and no benefit. We're here to inform people about health, not be regulatory nannies. We want smoking gone because it is a known killer.
And so does Glantz. His catalog of work in that arena must remain unchallenged, and he would not challenge ours, unless he is so beset by Big Tobacco paranoia he is letting that get in the way of being a trusted guide for public health.
No wars to fight, let's create one
There is a belief that when you have a big army you are going to find reasons to fight, and when you have a lot of prisons you will find a reason to put people in them. The French philosopher Émile Durkheim formalized that concept, which Senator Pat Moynihan would popularize, as "defining deviancy down." In a community of Bishops a Venial sin would be treated as a Cardinal one. As smoking rates plummeted and Big Tobacco of the 2000s was clearly not Big Tobacco of the 1960s, Glantz ran out of demons to fight, so he had to create new ones. And he has. Smoking is an addiction, and we have long embraced every method of kicking that nasty habit. That meant gums or patches, candy, heck, even hypnosis if it works. And so when e-cigarettes came along, with a comparatively harmless nicotine vapor replacing the tar that will kill you, we told smokers to try them for smoking cessation, and even if people could not (or would not) successfully quit, every e-cigarette that replaced a cigarette was 200 fewer toxic chemicals in someone's lungs, with resulting lower risks of cancers, etc.
Yet Glantz was still in a war on Big Tobacco, he couldn't leave the 1960s behind. He became essentially an epidemiological version of Oliver Stone. After a good 80 year run, Big Tobacco companies decided they might like to get into a business that was safer than cigarettes, wouldn't make them hated across America and, since 70 percent of the cost of a cigarette is tax, would be more profitable, and began to research those. Glantz was firmly against them still.
Well, if Stan Glantz were looking at the money trail of Stan Glantz, he might write a JAMA paper about that. In the early days Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Nicoderm CQ patches, were ready to help him in his "educational campaign" against smoking, to the tune of $399,000 from their foundation.(2) What would he say about a health scholar taking money from a competitor of e-cigarettes? Would he agree he was bought off or would he say that the company was simply funding work they liked that he already did? Like Coca-Cola did. Or Hershey's. Or Mars at U.C. Davis. Why is there a Big Tobacco conspiracy, and a Big Sugar conspiracy, but no Big Pharma one at UCSF?
Twenty years after his death, someone might just charge him with those ethical crimes based on his funding.
Yet he believes he is ethical - and somehow can't believe Fred Stare was. When it comes to Fred, follow the money, when it comes to Stan, corporations are instead wisely funding his good work. (3)
That's capricious thinking.
E-cigarettes are effectively dead in America, the only companies with the money to get products through registration and approval are, ironically, Big Tobacco and Big Pharma, so with a large ideological army needing to fight and a desire to define deviancy down, we suddenly got a 1960s sugar conspiracy and a Big Tobacco analogy. Sugar is a good choice because diet books about it have been all over the bestseller lists of the New York Times, so of course the New York Times was going to cover this paper.
Glantz tries to make it sound like a grad student of his organically found this research.
You don't have to be a conspiracy believer to wonder how grad students are given that much freedom in the competitive world of academia, you know the answer. They aren't. They are told what to do and they do it.
But if we were supposed to demonize saturated fat, why did we defend it?
Here is where conspiracy logic falls apart. Stare was a co-founder of the American Council on Science and Health in 1978, and from virtually that moment on we defended...saturated fat. The exact thing Professor Glantz said Stare was demonizing from the 1960s in order to defend Big Sugar corporate interests.
When all of the food fad followers, like Center for Science in the Public Interest and others, were telling you not to eat bacon or eggs, we said that they were not some special cause of heart disease. Like a Twinkie or anything else, use some common sense.
We even said the thing that replaces saturated fat could be pretty awful. Oddly, decades later trans fats were listed as some special cause of diabetes and we had to caution people that, though they had no nutritional value, they weren't a special cause of diabetes. We had to defend the thing we had warned people about because it was being demonized. New York City banned trans fats and diabetes went up - because, like we said, there are no magic bullets. People have to eat less, but calories are calories and too many will cause obesity and a host of complications.
Last year, Coca-Cola was vilified for funding a research center in Colorado, the implication being that they were buying off the scientists. Yet the researcher in question had been stating the same thing for decades. What was his big controversial claim? That if you burn as many calories as you take in, you won't gain weight. He wasn't bought off, they were giving the group money because they liked the work done at that school of medicine, the same way donors for Greenpeace do.
This all seems obvious, unless you are a conspiracy believer or are selling books claiming sugar is a special cause of diabetes and obesity and anyone who disagrees must be a shill - like Marion Nestle routinely does, and who adored one of the authors until she got a chance to advance her own book sales stomping on his reputation. Heck, Greg Glassman, the CEO of Crossfit, takes that arbitrary wackiness one step further. He claims Coke causes diabetes...but not Pepsi.
(1) I've actually never had a company call me up and ask me to do anything for a donation. We do have corporate donors, and I call them to update them on what we're working on like I do foundations and individuals, but we don't get anything from a candy company, a cigarette company, or a pharmaceutical company. However, like I said, anyone who wants to fund science and health is welcome to do so.
(2) Yet he denies that he or his school have received any money, without making himself a liar. "I've never taken a penny from any drug company," he told NPR when challenged about his funding. Which is true. The grantee from Robert Wood Johnson foundation was actually University of California, San Francisco, and
Stanton A. Glantz Ph.D. was only listed as the project director.
(3) We see this sort of conspiracy tale all of the time. On Twitter, someone saying they were a former employee claimed the scientific equivalent of his best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who's going with the girl who saw someone at ACSH ask for money for printing one time, and therefore the group is unethical today. It turned out he was an intern or whatever that was here for 6 months in 1988 and didn't like that we didn't undertake some programs if there was no way to fund them. No kidding? Guess what, if no one wants to pay to support it, it's probably not a very interesting topic.
If a company ever wants to print Priorities magazine for us, they are welcome to do so. Or any other publication. Seriously, pay that bill. Hit me up any time and we'll make arrangements.