Yesterday, Slate magazine featured a story on a disturbing imbalance in our approach to public health: an unjustified paranoia surrounding the distinction between “natural” and “artificial.” Prompted by a slew of news stories hyping the dubious cancer risks associated with cell phones, pesticides, and power lines, journalist Darshak Sanghavi pointed out that these alarmist threats, though unfounded, gain more attention than proven threats lurking in “natural” sources:
Unwittingly, we’ve seriously impeded cancer prevention with this not-so-useful distinction between the natural and artificial. It’s distracted us from the uncomfortable truth that most cancers are caused by the natural environment around us. As a result, we expend great effort and ink on low-yield strategies to prevent cancer, even though the better ones lie within our grasp.
This myth has infiltrated our beliefs about nutrition too, spawning the common misconception that “natural” is synonymous with “healthy.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
The most recent target of this confusion is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). For years, nutrition activists have campaigned against the corn-based sweetener, claiming that its beet-derived cousin, table sugar, was supposedly healthier because it was “natural.” King Corn, a newly released documentary, is even built entirely around this dubious claim. The movie should be shelved under “Fiction.”
According to decades of scientific research, HFCS affects our bodies in the same way as regular sugar. A 2006 story in The New York Times noted:
Many scientists say that there is little data to back up the demonization of high-fructose corn syrup, and that links between the crystalline goop and obesity are based upon misperceptions and unproved theories, or are simply coincidental.
Even infamous food cop Michael Jacobson admits that “there are a number of [HFCS] critics who have not provided a shred of evidence that high-fructose syrup is worse than sucrose.”
Nonetheless, activists continue to drive this hype in order to support their own agenda. And that comes with a high price. Just as the concentration on cell phones distracts people from real cancer threats, scare campaigners fixated on “processed” foods only succeed in distracting Americans from the true determinants of their health.