In a 2016 article, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, documented a surprising link between the sugar industry and research on fat. They showed that during the 1960s, the Sugar Research Foundation, an industry-sponsored organization, had paid for a group of doctors at Harvard University to write a literature review that downplayed the risks of sugar in heart disease and emphasized the risks of fat. A media storm followed, with widespread coverage of this “sugar conspiracy.” Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition from New York University, described the findings as “appalling.” Many quickly concluded that Big Sugar had shifted the course of nutrition science, with serious public health consequences.

But just two years later, historians David Merritt Jones and Gerald M. Oppenheimer argued that the alleged sugar conspiracy was nothing but science as usual. As they pointed out in an article in Science, the Harvard doctors already thought fat was to blame for heart disease, and had previously published influential research supporting this theory. Meanwhile, the main advocate of a link between sugar and heart disease, John Yudkin, was himself funded by the dairy and egg industries. In a piece for Slate, Jones and Oppenheimer criticized the critics of the sugar industry for their “highly selective and profoundly flawed interpretation of this history.”

Who is right? Which story should we believe? To answer this question, we need a more nuanced understanding of the many ways that industry can—and does—influence science.

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