June 1, 1980
NYT exposes ties to meat and eggs and makes diet-heart hypothesis seem truer.
The New York Times essentially took a poll: “at least 18 other health organizations and the Federal Government supported a reduction in fat and cholesterol,” wrote the editors, with only the academy and the American Medical Association on the other side. The diet’s potential costs—an increased heart disease risk from the carbohydrates, an increased risk of cancer from polyunsaturated oils, or a lack of adequate nutrition for children—were not part of the discussion. The Times concluded, “The Federal Government still thinks a prudent person should eat less fat and cholesterol. Unless the academy can authoritatively demonstrate Government error, a prudent person will do just that.”
Here, then, was the new reality: a political decision had yielded a new scientific truth. Contrary to the normal scientific method, which requires that a hypothesis be tested before it can be considered viable, in this case politics short-circuited the process, and an untested hypothesis was elevated as the reigning doctrine, presumed to be right until proven wrong.
For the academy’s report, the death knell was surely sounded on June 1, 1980, when the New York Times ran a front-page story about two board members and their ties to industry: Robert E. Olson, a biochemist at St. Louis University School of Medicine, had consulted for the egg and dairy industries, and Chairman Harper for the meat industry. These accusations were true. But again, corporate food interests were attempting to influence both sides of the debate. At the same time that two board members had been found to have ties to the meat, dairy, and egg industries, two other members of the academy’s board were food company employees, one with the spice maker McCormick and Company, and another with the Hershey Foods Corp. And from the start, the board had been funded by the Nutrition Foundation, whose members included General Foods, Quaker Oats, Heinz Co., and Corn Products Refining Co., among other major food corporations.
Even despite this powerful lobby, the board had stood firm against the new low-cholesterol, low-fat diet recommendations. “Our attitude at the time,” said Chairman Harper unapologetically in an interview when he was eighty-four years old, “was that if you had a competent person who was an adviser to a food company, there was no reason why they shouldn’t serve on the board.”