Historical Events

NIH Invests $250 Million Attempting to Show Healthfulness of Oils

NIH Invests $250 Million Attempting to Show Healthfulness of Oils

The National Diet Heart Study that Stamler and Keys were helping to run was a rigorous effort to test the feasibility of a full-sized study of the “prudent diet.” Seen now through the prism of industrial history, however, it seems entirely plausible that the endeavor, to which Swift & Co. devoted one of its employees full-time and developed high-polyunsaturated margarines and fake hamburgers, could reasonably be viewed in part as an industry-driven effort to broaden the market for its commodity oil.XI Companies contributing to the study included nearly every major food corporation in the country, including the vegetable oil giant Anderson, Clayton & Company, Carnation, The Corn Products Company, Frito-Lay, General Mills, H.J. Heinz, the Pacific Vegetable Oil Corporation, Pillsbury, and Quaker Oats, among others.

A “feasibility” study doesn’t produce results; it’s meant simply to test out the practicalities of a certain kind of experiment before ramping up to the full-scale version. And on these terms, it was clearly unsuccessful. Keys, Stamler, and their team found that fully a quarter of the men had dropped out during the first year because they found it too hard to eat all their meals at

home and because their wives were “uncooperative or disinterested.” The third principal reason the men gave was simply that they didn’t like the special diets; they missed their regular foods.

Whether the NIH should go on to invest in a larger study after this pilot effort was a question that administrators circled around repeatedly in a series of review committees throughout the 1960s. It was obviously a frustrating situation because, for the sake of the science, a full-scale clinical trial was urgently needed. Doctors following AHA guidelines had been recommending a diet low in animal fats and cholesterol for nearly a decade already, based on weak epidemiological associations and some loosely controlled trials which had not reduced overall mortality.


Ultimately, however, in 1971, the NIH decided against conducting a definitive test of the diet-heart hypothesis. It was just too impractical and uncertain. To make all those margarines and other special foods to sell in special stores for so many people over so many years could cost upwards of a billion dollars. And since participants could barely be persuaded to stick with the diet anyway, the whole endeavor seemed futile. The NIH thus decided as a fallback to spend $250 million on two smaller trials, which would nevertheless be among the largest, most expensive diet trials in the history of diet-heart research.

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