According to new research from the University of California, San Francisco, the sugar industry covertly paid Harvard University scientists to acquit sugar and instead blame fat for heart disease. This revelation created a media firestorm. Did Big Sugar really buy off our nation’s top nutritionists, bias government health policy for generations, and lead millions of Americans down the path to chronic disease? As Anahad O’Connor wrote in the New York Times, one Big Sugar scientist,
“… used his research to influence the government’s dietary recommendations, which emphasized saturated fat as a driver of heart disease while largely characterizing sugar as empty calories linked to tooth decay. Today, the saturated fat warnings remain a cornerstone of the government’s dietary guidelines.”
But this happened in the 1960’s. Nothing like this could happen in 2016, right?
The candy company Mars. Inc. is funding research by Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital on the alleged health benefits of cocoa extract. CrossFit Inc. has acquired a letter sent to potential subjects. The Mars study intends to look for benefits from cocoa extract in the “prevention of cardiovascular (heart/blood vessel) disease and cancer.”
The letter does not mention that it is funded by the candy company. It does, however, carry Harvard Medical School in its header, and is addressed from the “Division of Preventive Medicine.” The scientists Howard D. Sesso and JoAnn E. Manson of Harvard Medical School, as well as Garnet Anderson of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center appear at the bottom of the letter.
Besides Mars Inc., the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are collaborating on the study. Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital is listed as the “sponsor.” The study is nicknamed COSMOS, short for the “Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study.”
Cocoa extract is “derived from the seeds of the plant which is eventually used to make chocolate.” So studying cocoa extract is a means to study the health benefits of chocolate, such as the chocolate found in Mars Inc.’s candy brands Twix, M&M, Snickers and Milky Way. Might this constitute a conflict of interest? It is easy to imagine how a finding that chocolate prevents cancer would affect Mars’ chocolate sales. According to WebMD,
“the candy company Mars, Inc., plans to seek a health claim for chocolate from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the next few years based on research they sponsored regarding the potential role of cocoa flavonoids in cardiovascular health.”
Toward that end, Mars has funded “more than 150 peer-reviewed scientific papers” on cocoa’s alleged health benefits. Its Symbioscience project smacks of the same advert-science that Gatorade’s Sports Science Institute is notorious for.
Yet even with Harvard and Pfizer lending a hand, influencing FDA policy may be a tall order for Mars. The FDA sent Mars Inc. a warning letter in 2006. The FDA found that Mars’ Cocoa Via brand made “false or misleading claims that the products promote heart health.” Until the FDA stepped in, the chocolate bar’s label had promised, “Now you can have real chocolate pleasure with real heart health benefits.” The FDA was concerned that the bars’ saturated fat content would outweigh any potential benefit of chocolate, but the sugar content surely should have been a concern for heart health as well.
To sum it up, Mars is paying for Harvard Medical School research to see if micronutrients found in its candy bars prevent cancer and heart disease. And Pfizer and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research center are collaborating. As they say, the more things change …
The only good news we have is that the NIH is no longer involved. The National Institutes of Health’s Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute originally partnered with Mars Inc. on this cocoa/cancer study, but NIH had the wisdom to escape this conflict of interest catastrophe. If only NIH had demonstrated the same foresight with their Coca-Cola “Heart Truth” Partnership.