The Latest “Latest Study” Strikeout: Rats, Sugar, and Press Releases

We’ve made fun of “The Latest Study” for a decade, and today, the mockery rings truer than ever. The newest “latest study” may take the cake. A UCLA press release screams: “Sugar makes you stupid” — and in case that wasn’t clear, an Agence France Presse (AFP) headline cautions, “Sugar can make you dumb, US scientists warn.”

The press release drips with dread: “Attention, college students cramming between midterms and finals: Binging on soda and sweets for as little as six weeks may make you stupid.”

So, was this a survey of students’ performance on their final exams after drinking some cola? Maybe it was a randomized controlled trial of a sugar-reduced diet on performance on a standardized test? Wrong and more wrong. No, this study — that a university press office said should lead students to reconsider cola and chocolate — was a study of rats in isolation running mazes. Strike one.

Additionally, the press office’s basic scientific literacy was awful. The press release says that the researchers “zeroed in on high-fructose corn syrup, an inexpensive liquid six times sweeter than cane sugar, that is commonly added to processed foods […].” Of course, the only part of that that’s true is that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a fairly inexpensive liquid ingredient.

Oddly for a study ostensibly examining its effects, the terms “high fructose corn syrup” or “HFCS” don’t appear in the full text of the article. A quick read of the experimental methodology shows that the rats were given fructose solution, not high-fructose corn syrup (which is not pure fructose, but 42 or 55 percent fructose, comparable with table sugar). The AFP notes that the authors gave no estimate of the human-equivalent amount of fructose the rats were fed. Strike two for the press office.

And then strike three: the claim that high-fructose corn syrup is “six times sweeter than cane sugar.” The high fructose corn syrup used in soda (the 55-percent-fructose kind) is formulated to be only as sweet as cane sugar (sucrose). It makes sense when you think about it, since the two sugars are almost chemically identical. You’d think they’d have learned from columnist Kathleen Parker.

The real takeaway from the actual study is that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids is good for memory. Of course, that’s been common knowledge for some time, which is why Americans are encouraged to eat their fish. (Seafood is a good source of dietary omega-3 fats.) But restating stuff people already know isn’t going to snag headlines. Striking out sometimes does.

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