Even bad guys deserve a fair trial

If all the high fructose corn syrup on the planet were to disappear tomorrow, you wouldn’t find me shedding a tear. Thanks to government subsidies and a glut of cheap corn, HFCS is produced in massive quantities. As a result, our food supply has been flooded with cheap, empty calories and we’re fatter and sicker as a result.

But I was disappointed by the latest research on HFCS and the way it’s being reported.

In an effort to put the last nail in the HFCS coffin, Princeton researchers have hit the newswires with a sensational research result: Rats fed high fructose corn syrup gain significantly more weight than rats fed sucrose, even when both groups eat the same amount of calories.  That sounds pretty damning.  But if you read the entire study, I think you’ll be left with a lot more questions than answers.

Weird Science

The authors are making a big deal out of the fact that rats given HFCS gained more weight than rats given sucrose. They don’t mention that they actually had two groups of rats eating HFCS and only one of them gained more weight. The second HFCS group–which ate the same amount of HFCS as the first–gained exactly as much weight as the sucrose group (and, for the record, the same as a fourth group of mice that weren’t given sucrose OR HFCS).   You’d think that would deserve a comment.

In a second long-term experiment using female rats, they gave one group chow plus HFCS and another group chow plus sucrose. The sucrose group actually gained slightly more weight than the HFCS group, but the differences were not statistically significant. Seeing as this result directly contradicts (one of) the results from the short-term study, you would think that would have deserved a comment–if not equal billing in the press release.

But in fact, in the part of the paper where they discuss their results, the authors make what appears to be a blatant misstatement. They say that in the long-term experiment, “HFCS caused an increase in body weight greater than that of sucrose in both male and female rats.” In fact, according to their paper, none of the males in the  long-term experiment were given sucrose and the females given HFCS gained less weight than the comparable group of females given sucrose.  The only females that showed a statistically significant increase in weight gain were a group who were given 24-access to both food and HFCS…a group that had no comparable control in the study.

The Corn Refiner’s Association has raised several questions about study design. But because they are the “bad guys,” no-one seems to take their criticisms seriously. For the record, I am not supported by nor do I support the CRA. (Please re-read the first paragraph of this post).

As I see it, making unhealthy food cheaper doesn’t benefit consumers. The only ones benefiting from HFCS are corn growers and junk food manufacturers. But in a court of law, the rules of evidence are upheld even when we’re all sure that the guy on trial is a bad guy. And the same should apply to research–and journalism.

Weird conclusions

Aside from the problems with the study design and the misleading reporting of the results, the authors also make some odd speculations about the possible mechanisms behind the results (such as they were). For example,  the authors suggest that it is the increased percentage of fructose that makes HFCS more damaging than sugar. (HFCS is typically 55% fructose, sugar is 50%). But using their numbers, if we were to replace all the HFCS in today’s typical diet with sucrose, it would reduce the amount of fructose by 3 g per day.Honestly, it’s a little hard to believe that 3 g of fructose a day is responsible for all of our woes. (The 100% increase in refined sugar intake…now that I could buy.)

They also speculate that HFCS might suppress leptin and insulin release, which might fuel over-eating. Yet their own results don’t support this. The rats given HFCS ate the same number of calories as the rats given sucrose–even though they had unlimited access to more food.

Despite the headlines on the press release, the findings on HFCS vs. sucrose are actually so sketchy they’re not even mentioned in the “conclusion” section of the journal article. Ultimately, the only valid conclusion from this study is that if you give rats food and sweetened water, they will get fatter than if you only give them food and water. I think we knew that already.

It’s the quantity not the quality we should be worrying about

Research is research. But in the real world, I think we’ve got our priorities backward. Let’s first focus on reducing the outrageous quantity of sugar being consumed, and then worry about the quality.  I’ve said this before (to howls of protest) but I’ll say it again: If you were to reduce your intake of sugar to the levels recommended by the AHA or WHO, I haven’t seen one shred of evidence to suggest that ingesting HFCS (or sucrose) at those levels would lead to obesity or disease.

Note to industry advocates: No fair quoting from this post out of context. At least include a link to the entire post!


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