A new study in the journal Global Public Health resurrects one of the most pervasive myths surrounding public health nutrition today; namely, the claim that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is more harmful than equivalent amounts of table sugar (sucrose). The paper claims that countries that use HFCS in their food supplies have higher diabetes rates than those that use table sugar. Although the authors of the new study had to admit to The New York Times, “We’re not saying that high-fructose corn syrup causes diabetes,” that’s surely the implication.
Let’s remember that statistical analysis is not nutrition science. HFCS and sugar contain comparable amounts of fructose, a simple sugar and supposed dietary evil. HFCS is 42 or 55 percent fructose (it depends on what kind of food or beverage it’s used in), while sucrose, refined from beets and sugarcane, is 50 percent fructose. Interestingly, USDA data show that Americans consume 41 percent more calories per day from beet and cane sugar (185 calories) than HFCS (131). And did we mention that other evidence suggests that the associations of fructose with weight gain are from extra calories, as one would expect, and not the particular carbohydrate? (We bring this up because weight gain is associated with diabetes.)
Studies spreading myths about HFCS are nothing new, of course—remember the rodent study from earlier this year that had press releases claiming, “Sugar can make you dumb”? In fact, the corresponding author of this new study, Dr. Michael Goran, co-authored a 2010 study alleging that the HFCS in several brands of soda could be as much as 65 percent fructose. The International Society of Beverage Technologists found that bit of research deeply flawed, as it turns out the researchers used faulty methodology that didn’t test for enough sugars. It’s bizarre, then, to see Dr. Goran and his co-authors citing that bit of blemished research in this new study.
The latest round of under-supported claims even drew skepticism from regular food scold and First Amendment skeptic Marion Nestle. She told the Times: “I think it’s a stretch to say the study shows high-fructose corn syrup has anything special to do with diabetes.” We’ve said it before and we’ll probably say it again: If the queen of the food cops thinks you’ve gone too far, you probably have.