An Urban Myth Even Some Food Cops Don’t Buy

Last Sunday, the London Times reported that an influential Lancet study linking certain childhood vaccines to autism was, in fact, a hoax. This sudden overturning of a decade’s worth of conventional wisdom raises an interesting question: How many more public health alarms should we expect to see debunked in our lifetime? Consider the continued hysteria over high fructose corn syrup, which has been blamed for everything short of killing Bambi’s mom. More and more, researchers are now saying the same thing: Table sugar, corn sugar – you say tomato, I say tomahto. They’re virtually identical once your body gets to work on them.
Which is why Tuesday’s New York Times summarized the debate over corn syrup and obesity as, well, “fuss.”
“When it comes to calories and weight gain,” wrote Times reporter Jane Brody, “it makes no difference if the sweetener was derived from corn, sugar cane, beets or fruit juice concentrate. All contain a combination of fructose and glucose and, gram for gram, supply the same number of calories.”
The most recent dose of reality was delivered by five recent papers published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, all of which came to the same conclusion: There is “no special link between consumption of high-fructose corn syrup and obesity.” In other words, these studies joined the decades of research that corn sugar affects our bodies in the same way as sugar made from beets or cane.
Watching the food police react to this waterfall of evidence has been fascinating. While some food activists remain stubborn, desperately trying to find new scares to associate with corn sugar, others have seen the light of scientific reality. Consider two vocal food cops who refuse to go down with the hype-filled ship: Marion Nestle and Michael Jacobson.
Nestle believes, correctly, that corn syrup “is just sugar in liquid form.” As she put it in a column last year: “Table sugar is glucose and fructose stuck together. Corn sweeteners are glucose and fructose separated. The body really can’t tell them apart."
In fact, Nestle offers one possible health interpretation of corn sugar’s slightly higher proportion of fructose: “If you are an optimist, you are happy that fructose — unlike glucose — does not stimulate the release of insulin, and in small amounts can be a useful sweetener for people with diabetes.”
Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest has also dismissed the criticism of corn sugar. As he explained in this week’s Times article, “It’s an urban myth that high-fructose corn syrup has a special toxicity.” Or, as he Dr. Walter Willett put it in 2006, “There’s no substantial evidence to support the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is somehow responsible for obesity … If there was no high-fructose corn syrup, I don’t think we would see a change in anything important."
That’s true: If corn sugar didn’t exist, stubborn food cops would undoubtedly cling to some other urban myth. And when this myth finally recedes, there will surely be another one.

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