Sugar and Fat Policy in the US

A recent article in the New York Times illustrated the difficulties of creating policies. In particular, the article came to the conclusion, that the policy push against fatty food – a standard policy across the world – has been orchestrated by the the sugar industry.

The interesting part is, that they did not lie about the effects of fatty food. They merely paid scientists at Harvard in the 1960s to under-report the dangers of sugar for health. The headline of said research continues to dominate the way that health efforts by governments are understood today.

The scientific discourse was manipulated to remove alternatives (Bardach, 2012) that would later not show up in any policy analysis until the 2010s. The authors of those sugar industry papers continued in high positions in the US government and as head of university departments.

This article shows the limitations of efficiently transporting scientific findings into policies. A common strategy – also used in this case – seems to be to shift the goal post such that the focus moves to another problem, e.g. from sugar and fatty food to only fatty food.

The article went on to claim, that, potentially, today would be very different if sugar had remained a valid policy option removing many of today’s obese. This is probably a bit simplistic, but the question goes in the right direction. Industry-driven research will always be foremost about the industries interests and only secondary about public interest.

Good research can come out of an industry-driven context, but should always be contrast with research of non-interested /uninvolved groups. This is nonetheless a stretch as there seems to be little incentive for the uninvolved to invest enough into the research of the industry area without themselves becoming involved.

This particular situation of industry-driven research would probably require a change in the incentive structure such that the public can obtain alternatives that would be in their interest but otherwise be removed as they are opposed to the industries interest. This could only come by a policy change that puts industry under more pressure to also discuss unfavourable results.

This sounds at first contradictory, but moves in the pharmaceutical industry (“Spilling the beans,” 2015) have shown that there can be a construct that is beneficial to the industry as well as the public interest. However, it is likely to be necessary to devise a specific policy for each industry as the respective requirements should be wide.


Bardach, E. (2012). Step Three: Construct the Alternatives. In A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis (pp. 16–31). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.