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Sugar’s Not the Only Industry Fudging the Facts: It Happens All the Time

The news that the sugar industry had been keeping its finger on the scale for decades when it came to whether sweet or fatty foods were more to blame for heart disease was a shocking disclosure, but it's not the first time corporate interests have been caught manipulating numbers to put the odds in their favor.

Read More: The Sugar Industry Manipulated Heart Studies, One Review Finds

The scope of the sugar manipulation that was discovered is nearly unrivaled in its scale, with the possible exception of Big Tobacco's decades-long public campaign of misinformation about smoking. Researchers found that the sugar industry poured the equivalent of $5.3 million in today's dollars into research that demonized fat as the main contributor to heart disease and touted the benefits of a low-fat diet.

A man displays snakes while selling snake oil street-side in Yangon
A man selling snake oil -- a term now used to describe a policy or product that is promoted as the solution to a problem. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters / REUTERS

Lower-fat and fat-free processed foods often contain more added sugar, benefiting the sugar industry, possibly at the expense of the American public's health. So much of the sugar-friendly research has been embraced as conventional medical wisdom, but it's hardly the only case of number-fudging, in the pantry and beyond. Here are some of the other notable cases.

Tobacco

Big Tobacco is pretty much the poster child for data manipulation, with a WHO report calling it "the most astonishing systematic corporate deceit of all time." Cigarette company executives denied that smoking caused cancer and was addictive, while employing marketing sleights-of-hand to falsely reassure people that "low-tar" cigarettes were better for you and increase the number of smokers, including by targeting kids and teenagers with advertising.

Banking

Wells Fargo was handed $185 million in fines last week after regulators discovered that employees had opened more than 2 million accounts, many of which triggered fees that bolstered the bank's bottom line, without customers' knowledge or consent. Wells Fargo had been touted for its success "cross-selling" additional financial products to existing customers, and the executive in charge of the unit where the activities took place received a $125 million retirement package.

Name-Brand Drugs

Two different studies, one conducted by ProPublica, the other by Harvard Medical School, found that doctors who received payments from drug companies were more likely to prescribe name-brand medications to patients. "We found that physicians in five common medical specialties who accepted at least one industry payment were more likely to prescribe high rates of brand-name drugs than physicians who did not receive any payments," ProPublica's report said.

Beverages

A meta-study of research done about various health and nutrition claims of soda, juice and milk found that when studies were funded by industry trade groups representing those beverages, the conclusions reached were four to eight times more likely to be positive. Researchers for the meta-study looked at 206 studies conducted over a five-year period that analyzed beverage health claims like improving bone strength or immune systems. For studies entirely funded by their respective industry, the meta-study researchers found that not a single one came to a negative conclusion.

Car Sales

Regulators investigated Fiat Chrysler and found that it overstated the number of cars it sold to extend a positive sales streak. Chrysler isn't the only automaker that's been caught buffing its numbers to make them look a little shinier, though. Luxury brands including BMW, Cadillac and Lincoln all have been caught manipulating sales data to make their market share look larger.

Soft Drinks

The American Beverage Association and soft drink giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi have funded studies claiming that drinking diet soda is a better option than plain water for people trying to lose weight. Coke also bankrolled a short-lived initiative called the Global Energy Balance Network that emphasized exercise rather than cutting out sugar to combat obesity. The group shut down after the New York Times disclosed the company's ties to the group, which included $550,000 in payments to the University of Colorado professor who led it. (The professor also asked a Coca-Cola executive to give his son a job at the company, the Denver Post reported.)