This article is somewhat different than the subject matter reviewed in previous months.
This discussion touches on how health care professionals as well as the general public gets information on health topics. In many cases, health care professionals acquire this knowledge through medical research studies. We are going to discuss an example of how research can become distorted. While this may not happen often, when it does, it is very significant.
In recent years, it has come to light that high levels of sugar consumption have led to the development of an increased prevalence of obesity in the United States. It also has come to light that high levels of sugar intake as well as high levels of blood sugar are important contributors to the development of coronary heart disease.
What is very interesting is that in the early 1960s, there was research that showed diets high in sugar can lead to higher cholesterol levels. High cholesterol levels, as most of us are aware, are associated with the development of coronary heart disease. Also, in the early 1960s, an organization called the Sugar Research Foundation, which represented the economic interests of the sugar industry, became concerned with the discovery that people who ate a low fat diet that was high in sugar could develop high blood cholesterol levels.
While the prevailing opinion at that time was that saturated fat was the primary dietary cause of coronary heart disease, some scientists challenged this theory and suggested sugar consumption was at least as important as saturated fat in determining coronary artery disease risk. The Sugar Research Foundation took it upon themselves to fund a research project in the middle 1960s, which cast doubt on the health hazards of dietary sugar and promoted the notion that reducing saturated fat intake was the major dietary lifestyle change that could reduce coronary heart disease in the U.S.
This research study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, a prestigious medical research journal. Medical research studies that are published in journals like the NEJM often can result in health policy
decision-making at the state and national levels. What was not revealed at the time of the publication was the extent of the Sugar Research Foundation’s funding and involvement in the research project and publication.
As a result of the appearance of conflict of interest and the concern that the conflict of interest may have resulted in a bias in the ultimate findings of the
research project, the New England Journal of Medicine since has instituted a policy that requires all scientists to disclose potential conflicts of interest when submitting a study for research publication. In addition, other journals and research entities also have adopted the policy to disclose potential conflicts of interest.
So what is the moral of this story?
My conclusion is the medical field has to be very vigilant in evaluating the validity of research studies in order to weed out studies that are tainted by bias on the part of the researchers or the funders of the research. In addition, it is important to reduce your sugar intake for a heart-healthy diet.
Dr. Mark Roth writes about internal medicine for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is an internal medicine physician with University Hospitals.