Once again, a study of the simple sugar fructose is making waves for all the wrong reasons. This time, scientists found that fructose can “feed” pancreatic cancer cells. And in an all-too-familiar misunderstanding, people think this study applies uniquely to high fructose corn syrup, but not fruit or table sugar. However, as Salon.com’s Francis Lam writes, nutritionist Marion Nestle is adding some helpful clarity to the muddy misinterpretations:
This is fructose they are talking about, not HFCS specifically. HFCS is not particularly high in fructose compared to table sugar. Both are about 50% fructose and are about equal in their effects. So is honey. Agave has even more. Fructose-containing sugars are best consumed in small amounts but there's nothing new in that advice. If it is true that the average American consumes 25% of calories from added sugars or even 20%, that means that 10% or more of the calories come from fructose. Not a good idea.
In other words, eat sugar in moderation. Pretty standard advice and perhaps a bit bland, but isn’t the best advice usually such? (And if fructose is so bad, should we all give up eating apples and bananas?)
It’s nice to see Lam conclude that the mudslinging against high fructose corn syrup “has never been about science, really.” That much is clear in the misinterpretation and spin about this latest study, starting with hysterical hyperbole from one of the study’s authors: “Hopefully, at the federal level there will be some effort to step back on the amount of high fructose corn syrup in our diets.”
But such nonsense ignores the fact that the primary source of fructose in the average American’s diet is table sugar, not corn sugar. USDA data on sweetener consumption demonstrate that Americans eat more table sugar than high fructose corn syrup, and both sugars are about 50 percent fructose.
Not that it matters for scaremongers. It’s almost comically formulaic: Scientists study fructose but are sure to mention high fructose corn syrup somewhere, knowing that it will probably get media coverage. CBS News at least ultimately got it right by writing, “don't be fooled by products which replace high-fructose corn syrup with sugar.”
And there are plenty of food marketing teams who are trying to look good by switching from the unfairly maligned high fructose corn syrup to supposedly “natural” table sugar, despite one Harvard scientist’s observation that this practice is “100 percent marketing and zero percent science.” A good example of this gimmick is Sara Lee Corp., which is removing high fructose corn syrup from some of its bread products. But guess what? A serving of the “new” bread formulation has just as many grams of carbohydrates as the last one. (And the two kinds didn’t have much sugar to start with.)
Here’s some final food for thought on this study’s finding: As Ronald Bailey points out over at Reason magazine, pancreatic cancer rates have been stable in men for nearly 30 years, the same period of time during which overall sweetener consumption has increased in the US.