David Katz: Junk Food’s Slyest Defender

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Big Sugar’s paid expert witness, David Katz.

Yale University’s David Katz writes frequently on sugar and health-related conflicts without disclosing his apparent myriad conflicts of interest. Katz has managed to become one of the foremost nutrition researchers in America. He is founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, current President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, writes for US News and World Report, and has over a half-million followers on social media. Greatist named him the 13th most influential person in health and fitness.

Yet Katz did not reach fame through any particular scientific breakthroughs, nor through prominent achievement in public health. Rather, Katz owes his fame to frequent quotes by journalists and prolific blogging. Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that neither Katz nor the journalists regularly fulfill their ethical duties and inform readers of Katz’s lucrative ties to Big Soda, Big Sugar, and other junk food companies. One site even described Katz as “not being on the take from industry.”

Katz is the junk food industry’s subtlest paid advocate. He has developed a strategy that allows him to introduce junk food industry talking points without coming across as a shill. First, Katz concedes a minor point to the public health crowd in order to establish his bona fides and come across as a credible source. Then he comes across with a sweeping claim that defends the junk food industry and its paid research.

Katz’s one-two strategy, combined with journalistic negligence, has allowed him to escape serious scrutiny. But no longer–it’s time to correct the record.

David Katz and Chobani’s Sugary Yogurt

This 2012 ABC News piece mentioned a lawsuit against the yogurt company Chobani for calling sugar “evaporated cane juice.” The lawsuit alleged that Chobani used “evaporated cane juice” to disguise its excessive added sugar content. Hey, juice is healthy, right?

In the ABC News article, Katz conceded that the junk food industry may deceive consumers, but then rejects the comparison between Big Tobacco and the junk food industry, saying,

“With tobacco the product is just bad and we can eradicate it. No one needs to smoke. But we’re not going to eradicate food,”

To be sure, no one needs cigarettes, but does anyone need Chobani Yogurt, with 36% more sugar than protein, either? Katz’s misleading contrast between tobacco and junk food prompted the ABC journalist to argue in favor of collaborating with the junk food industry rather than confronting it for damaging public health. Eight months later, Katz revealed that Chobani paid him $3,500 an hour to serve as an expert witness in the same sugar lawsuit the 2012 ABC News piece covered. It’s not clear if Chobani hired Katz before ABC ran its article or afterwards.

As Chobani’s expert witness, Katz attacked the opposing side’s expert, Dr. Robert Lustig of UC San Francisco. Katz alleged that Lustig “inaccurately vilifies sugar.” His statement mentioned diabetes just once: to allege that yogurt might protect against it (Surely this does not apply to Chobani yogurt, overflowing with added sugar).

Katz rested his defense of the junk food company Chobani on the claim that, “any distinction as to the source of sugars … is immaterial.” Thus he implied that the sugar in fresh oranges affects the body just the same as the added sugar in Coca-Cola, ignoring the fact that the sugar in fruit comes in lower concentrations and is accompanied by fiber, polyphenols, and vitamins that affect the metabolic response to sugar. In his Chobani expert report, Katz favorably cited the FDA’s decision not to distinguish between added and naturally-occurring sugars.

Three years later, Katz contradicted his previous position on sugar and publicly agreed with Dr. Lustig’s distinction between added and natural sugars. He even attacked the FDA’s regulations for NOT addressing added sugar. What changed? Well, Katz developed a new source of food industry funding, for one. KIND Bars hired him as their “Senior Nutrition Advisor,” and Kind Bars was confronting FDA scrutiny for its claim to be healthy. Katz began by defending the bars’ added fat content as well as attacking the FDA’s inaction on added sugar. Yes, this is the same FDA inaction he had once defended for Chobani (The FDA has since decided to begin labeling added sugars). 

Distinguishing Coca-Cola from oranges made no sense when Chobani paid Katz, but it made perfect sense when Kind Bars funded him.

NPR and NIH Ignore David Katz’s Hershey’s Funding

Sugar-sweetened yogurt is just the beginning of Katz’s apparent conflicts. The Hershey’s Company has paid Katz over $731,000 for research. Unsurprisingly, the Centers for Disease Control partnered with Hershey’s chocolate in funding Katz’s research on the supposed health benefits of cocoa, just as the CDC has partnered in Katz’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center.

Katz has escaped scrutiny for his candy funding, even among the government regulators and left-leaning media. For example, the NIH’s Clinical Trials database failed to mention Katz’s Hershey’s funding for one of his chocolate studies, an inexplicable omission given the conflict of interest. And NPR’s Allison Aubrey quoted David Katz on the health benefits of chocolate. In NPR, Katz defended the Mars Inc./Pfizer/Harvard study on cocoa we covered earlier on this blog. Neither the NPR reporter nor Katz himself mentioned the nearly three-quarters of a million dollars Hershey’s has paid him. This is an especially harmful omission for NPR to make–he is the article’s sole expert.

Could you imagine an NPR reporter covering the supposed health benefits of whiskey and exclusively citing Jack Daniels’ research and Jim Beam’s paid scientist?

Criticizing and Working for Coca-Cola Proxies, at the Same Time

When Anahad O’Connor exposed Coca-Cola’s Global Energy Balance Network last year in the New York Times, Katz swiftly stepped in to defend industry-funded research. Katz employed his usual one-two strategy. First he conceded that the GEBN was “a scandalous betrayal of public health.” Yet he then warned against drawing conclusions beyond this particular case, claiming that,

“An expansive disparagement of ‘industry funded’ research, for instance, is not justified”

To support his point, Katz cited his industry-funded research on walnuts. Katz protected his walnut research against his own bias, he averred. Yet he neglected to mention his work for candy and added sugar purveyors. It gets worse.

Katz concluded his article by claiming that the GEBN,

“is mired in conflict and cannot be what it purported to be. The scientists running it cannot serve public health, and their funder- for the two are at odds.”

And Katz went on to claim that Coca-Cola should not fund any projects related to food and health since,

“Coca-Cola is not merely biased on the topic of energy balance; they are conflicted. If the truth about energy balance inveighs against their product, as it does, they will work against the interests of public health and attempt to conceal that reality- as they have. They have no business funding a campaign about calories and truth, because the truth about calories is not in their interest.”

This makes sense, but Katz neglected to mention his own ties to a Coca-Cola proxy, as did Time Magazine when it quoted him while covering the GEBN fallout. Let us employ the principle of charity and assume Katz forgot. In that case, here is a reminder that he has maintained a long-term relationship with a Coca-Cola-funded health initiative.

Katz became President-elect of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine in 2012. Later that year, the ACLM chose The Coca-Cola Company as the “Platinum Sponsor” of its 2012 Lifestyle Medicine Conference.

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From research by Noor Greene. Image available here.

Coca-Cola’s transparency database fails to mention its payments to the ACLM. And the soda proxy has kept its site clean of any reference to its Coca-Cola funding. Katz even wrote an ACLM “President’s Report” criticizing the Global Energy Balance Network, advocating for “carefully vetted” funding sources and promising that ACLM is “proceeding accordingly.” As usual, Katz’s ACLM report failed to mention ACLM’s own Coca-Cola relationship, despite his prior admonition that “funding sources and conflicts of interest (real or potential) should be reported and entirely transparent.”

If Coca-Cola money presented an inherently corrupting conflict for the GEBN, Katz must explain why it was perfectly acceptable for his own organization, of which he is now President, to accept Coke’s dollars. Furthermore, if Katz really thinks the GEBN was a “scandalous betrayal of public health,” why does his organization continue to employ GEBN founder, Steven Blair, on its Board of Advisors?

David Katz’s PepsiCo Relationship

David Katz has maintained a relationship with PepsiCo through its Quaker Oats brand. Quaker Oats has paid Katz at least $633,000 for research over the course of his career. PepsiCo completed its acquisition of Quaker Oats in August 2001.

Katz’s Quaker relationship continued after the PepsiCo merger, meaning that it morphed into a relationship between Katz and PepsiCo. In September 2001, Katz published this “Scientific Review of the Health Benefits of Oats” for what was then PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats brand. He also spoke on cardiovascular health at a PepsiCo/Quaker conference in 2002. In 2004, he published a Quaker Oats-funded study on oatmeal that found “no significant differences” in endothelial function between the intervention and control groups, but nonetheless managed to draw conclusions about the “suggested effects of oats” by pooling the data together.

Big Sugar Hired David Katz as Expert Witness

Refinery 29 quoted David Katz to defend sugar in its January 2015 article, “Quitting Sugar is Not the Answer.” He first denied that sugar is anything like a toxin or addictive drug, but then added that sugar,

“does have addictive elements … If you’re used to eating lots of sugar, you’re going to crave it more.”

But Katz would not have you conclude from this fact that sugar is an addictive drug that you should eliminate from your diet. He instead stated that cutting out sugar is “just not necessary” and recommended that people include sweets in as part of a healthy diet. Refinery 29’s Kelsey Miller failed to mention that Big Sugar hired Katz as an expert witness on the metabolic effects of sugar in the lawsuit Western Sugar Cooperative, et al. vs. Archer-Daniels-Midland, Inc., et al. His previous Chobani contract would suggest that Big Sugar’s paying Katz roughly $3,500 an hour.

Similarly, Yahoo published “How to Eliminate Sugar From Your Diet in 21 Days” by Jacqueline Andriakos. There Katz recommended that people trying to eliminate sugar add a “low-sugar Kind Bar” to their bag. That’s right–Katz recommended that people trying to cut out sugar eat sugar. A search for a “low sugar” Kind bar yields one that contains a teaspoon of added sugar per bar. The only way to make sense of this is to remember that Kind Bar has paid Katz over $154,000. Andriakos did not mention Katz’s financial relationships with Kind Bar, nor did she mention his ties to the Western Sugar Cooperative, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola.

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David Katz recommends people trying to cut out sugar eat sugar-sweetened Kind Bars, his sponsor’s product.

Journalists, before you interview David Katz, remember the words of Shawn Carter: “Type it in, Google’s your friend bruh.” It is one thing to quote Katz as junk food’s paid advocate, but it’s quite another to present him as an independent and objective source of credible information.

Public Health Advocate / Junk Food Defender: David Katz’s Double Life

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David Katz covertly reviewed a book he wrote under a pseudonym.

 

When he was not advocating for junk food, Katz wrote a novel under the pseudonym Samhu Iyyam. We are told Iyyam is female. This information may seem strange, but at least it is ethically neutral. That neutrality ended when Katz reviewed his female alter ego’s work in the Huffington Post. The review may go down in history as the foremost example of self-reverence. Without revealing that he wrote the book, Katz exclaimed that he found the writing,

“as enthralling as the story was riveting. In reVision, Colleen McCullough meets John Milton. Yeats meets Yourcenar. In the blend of rollicking adventure with utopian aspiration, J.K. Rowling meets Gene Roddenberry. Where characters are vividly rendered and complex ideas distilled to stunningly simple clarities, Dickens meets Dawkins. As a clash of other worlds illuminates the better ways our world might be, Plato’s Republic meets Lord of the Rings. Where lyrically beautiful writing and deep currents of humanism traverse expanses of law and folklore, science and faith, passion and politics — the Bible, Bill of Rights and Bhagavad Gita commingle.”

Fred Brown, the Society of Professional Journalists’ spokesman rebuked Katz’s review as unethical, explaining, “You should not review something without revealing you wrote it.” When this scandal broke, Huffington Post removed Katz’s covert self-reviews, though he claims to remain on a HuffPo editorial board. Yet, as strange as Katz’s career as a novelist has been, it pales in comparison to what Katz has pulled off with nutrition.

Katz has managed to live two lives, one as a paid junk-food apologist, the other as an independent source for public health information. But what makes his story more remarkable is that he successfully played both roles under a single name. And the media and government failed to adequately vet him for conflicts of interest, all the while promoting his work to the unknowing public. Thanks to the CDC, US taxpayers provided the “core funds” for Katz’s research.

Logically and physically, only one Dr. David Katz can exist. His public health persona may be a facade, but the million-plus he has accepted from junk food companies remains a matter of fact.

12 comments

  1. David and I have exchanged many emails over the years and I always sensed that there was more to his story than he let on. Of course I thought his NuVal food rating system was a bad joke. I usually sent him copies of my blog posts that typically trashed one aspect or another of the Food Industrial Complex and David would respond stating that my ideas certainly weren’t “mainstream”. It now looks like David’s ideas are “Payolastream”. Katz makes Professor Haub of Twinkie diet fame look like Mother Teresa. It’s always good to expose a shill and now David Katz has no place to hide.

  2. As someone living with sugar addiction, I am not surprised by this article. I used Weight Watchers tools and some guidelines for managing sugar addiction to learn how to regain control of my impulses (and lose a lot of weight). I could not go to the Weight Watchers meetings at first because of the influence of sugar there (products sold on commission and insistence that nothing was off limits). When I went to the meetings to claim lifetime benefits, I was asked to downplay my sugar addiction when I told my success story. After I published my story, they insisted that there was no scientific evidence or research proving sugar addiction. Perhaps Mr Katz is one of their sources.
    The only reason I continue with Weight Watchers is because I use their tracking tools and online community support.
    I have to rely on my own personal data–how I feel, mentally and physically, when I eat. Greatly reducing and then eliminating processed sugar (cane, date, maple syrup, agave, etc.) has made a huge difference to my quality of life. I have lost, and kept off over seventy-five. And that’s just a side effect of just paying attention to how I feel.
    Good article. (I trust your facts are checked!)

    • I agree completely with your perspective. This clown has been viewed as an “dietary expert” by the media and medical profession for years. Now it looks like he would have to improve to become a prostitute!

  3. I had his number when we had a conversation in the comments on one of his HuffPo pieces and he started deleting my politely reasoned replies. If there remains any doubt that he is nothing more than a narcissistic wanker, the book review fiasco alone should be enough evidence to the contrary.

    • In 2006 he made this comment to my friend Jimmy Moore: “The fact that you’ve lost weight does not make you a nutrition expert,” he wrote to me in an e-mail in 2006. “I have driven over suspension bridges–doesn’t make me an engineer.” What a complete jerk!

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  5. ninat12

    My comment was also deleted from the Huffington Post–twice. Did you know that the medical editor of the Huffpo is none other than Dean Ornish? Ornish and Katz are involved in a quite a few ventures, it turns out. And the Huffpo is less than transparent about its lack of objective editorship.

  6. puddleg58

    In this recent article, the egregious Dr seems to be saying that type 2 diabetes and obesity can be reversed by the elimination of meat. However, the question of whether one eats meat, or instead eats eggs, dairy, nuts, fish or whatever with one’s non-starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruits is irrelevant to the question of whether carbohydrate restriction is an effective therapy.
    He and his co-author are also conflating the question of what causes diabetes with the question of what is a sufficiently effective treatment – these are not identical questions.
    https://www.verywell.com/is-low-carb-better-than-bariatric-surgery-for-diabetes-4095306

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  9. Dr. Katz has also made lots of hay by denigrating leaders in the field who have NO financial conflicts, like Dr. Robert Lustig. He has written at least 8 articles making disparaging comments about Dr. Lustig and questioning his motives. I don’t have a problem with debating the science, nor does Dr. Lustig, but the personal attacks are really low. Decency and ethics should prohibit a true professional from attacking leaders in the field on a personal basis. Civilized and rigorous academic debate is most welcome however.

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