Amorphous Intelligence

Sugar and HFCS and Obesity, Oh My!

Posted in Current Events, Logic, Rationalism, Reason, Science, Skepticism by amorphousintelligence on July 17, 2009

About 4 or 5 years ago (2004 or 2005), my dad told me (among others) that his elder brother (a chiropractor) had shown him some charts or graphs or something. These allegedly indicated that the growing trend of obesity in the United States in the past 20 or 30 years or so correlates with the growing consumption of high fructose corn syrup. (Here’s a 2004 CBS news video I just found showing charts/graphs making the same correlation, so I’m speculating this is similar to what my dad was shown.)

For a bit of context, high fructose corn syrup (or HFCS) is partly a misnomer. One would think by its name alone that it is pure fructose, or nearly pure. But it is actually only about half fructose, the other half being glucose. This is nearly the same chemical blend of sucrose (regular granulated white table sugar): half fructose, half glucose. But with HFCS the molecules are not bound together as in sucrose, hence the liquid texture compared to the crystalline granular texture of sugar. But the sweetness is similar. However, HFCS, as the name suggests, is derived from corn, whereas sucrose is derived from sugarcane. Since corn is grown more abundantly in the United States than sugarcane, then several decades ago many U.S. food manufactures (helped along by tariffs) realized it is less expensive to use HFCS in the food supply. (Since sugarcane grows more abundantly in Central and South America, then sucrose is used more abundantly in that food supply.) This cost decrease alone was a compelling enough business reason to make the switch, but additionally as an added bonus HFCS keeps food moister and it blends better in drinks.

Getting back to my dad’s point, though: HFCS appears to be a big cause, if not perhaps the main or only cause, of why so many Americans are fat these days.

At the time I heard this I had very little knowledge of HFCS. Nonetheless, my gut reaction to this singularly direct cause-and-effect claim was that I wasn’t so sure I bought it. Based solely on my life experiences, I was of the general opinion people are overweight largely because they don’t exercise enough and/or eat too much, whether it be too much HFCS, or too many hamburgers, or pizza, or ice cream, or broccoli, or whatever. Even so, I put this bit of information in the back of my mind and didn’t bother to do anything with it since I didn’t take it too seriously.

But then 60 Minutes aired a segment on this very issue, I think sometime in 2007 or 2008. (I’m unable to find it on the web, so this paragraph is only as good as my memory, which is highly suspect.) I perked my ears up mildly hoping for some closure since I remembered what my chiropractic uncle had apparently convinced my father of. 60 Minutes’ conclusion? As best as I can recall, HFCS alone is not likely the culprit of the growing obesity epidemic in the U.S.

I was content with that so, once again, promptly lost sight of the issue.

Then my interests were roused while listening to Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid (one of my regular podcasts I listen to) last month. He too addressed this issue and had even more insights than 60 Minutes (I think), but basically the same conclusion (I think).

This in turn led me to the issued report of the American Medical Association (AMA) that their review of the scientific literature shows that “it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose [i.e. regular white granulated table sugar].”

I later discovered that Consumer Reports published an article in October 2008, also with about the same conclusion.

Then last week I read a blog post by Yale neurologist Dr. Steven Novella (one of my regular bloggers I skim) that also addressed this issue, with again the same general conclusion. But he peaked my interests the most as I felt he summed up the science best, with the right emphasis on the right spots, in an easy-to-read post.

Although I had not specifically discussed the HFCS issue with my dad since that one occurrence, I surmised he still believed its causal connection to obesity, so decided to forward him Dr. Novella’s NeuroLogica blog post thinking he may find the simplified clear science writing interesting food-for-thought.

He responded and because of our ensuing communication, I decided to do more research, including searching more science/medical blogs, magazines, searching the government dietary guidelines, and even the PubMed database for the ultimate sources of medical truth: the highly rigorous, non-conflicts-of-interests, double-blind studies, peer-reviewed scientific/medical journals. I wrote him my personal summary of the issue, paraphrased as follows:

HFCS and sucrose (i.e. regular white granulated table sugar) are in essence the same chemical make-up and all the best scientific studies show that they don’t effect human health differently from one another which is contrary to many widespread un-scientific claims in recent years that HFCS alone is to blame for the cause of the U.S. obesity epidemic. (This claim stems from the common error of confusing correlation with causation, in logic it is the “post-hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, so it’s a perfectly understandable error.) Singling out HFCS as the main (or sole) cause to obesity is both untrue and unhelpful. However, HFCS, like sucrose, certainly can be A contributing factor to obesity by virtue of the fact that they both are highly caloric and taste very good and therefore people consume more (and thus more calories) than they metabolize/ burn. Obesity is caused by a simple equation: more calories consumed—regardless of where they come from—than burned equals more fat build up.

I had won my father over to good science.

With that issue between us resolved, though, another cropped up. In one of my dad’s e-mail responses, he wrote, “Doesn’t HFCS, just like sugar, contribute to cellular inflammation that contributes to aging?”

This presented a whole new challenge for me (which I wasn’t too thrilled about since the last one took me 4 or 5 years to intelligibly respond to). I had never heard or read anything about this. I don’t even know for certain what “cellular inflammation” means or if it really exists. So I decided to put forth several more hours of research effort to see what I could learn. Naturally, I set out again to find the scientific/medical consensus since that is the most reasonable approach for a layperson such as myself to take on such issues.

In part, here’s what I wrote back: I searched all the science/medical blogs, magazines, journals, and government dietary guidelines I could think of and found no specific reference to the words you used. But the consensus among the sources I searched was to consume sugar/HFCS, but very little (something like a few teaspoons a day). The consensus continued to say that consuming too much sugar/HFCS (I guess more than a few teaspoons a day) can lead to too many over-all calories being consumed, and thus lead to obesity, and thus lead to diabetes and potentially many other medical conditions caused by obesity, such as heart disease. (They also agree that too much sugar/HFCS can contribute to tooth decay.) So in that sense, then yes, I suppose you could say sugar/HFCS contributes to aging. But I don’t think that is the sense you were thinking of as none of my sources said anything about “cellular inflammation.” Anyhow, that’s the best I can sum up the scientific/medical consensus on this issue as I understand it.

Nonetheless, amid our ongoing conversation, I learned from my dad that he still feels there is some validity to the claim because he said Dr. Oz had written or spoken about it. (He also mentioned another doctor, a dermatologist I believe he said, whose name has slipped my mind.) This connection is, of course, a well-known logical fallacy called “argument from authority.”

Dr. Mehmet C. Oz (a.k.a. “Dr. Oz”, who does have his M.D., from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and has also obtained his undergraduate degree from Harvard, and is currently a professor of cardiac surgery at Columbia University, therefore a person who commands much authority indeed) has recently become widely popular with the general public since he is featured regularly on The Oprah Winfrey Show. I honestly don’t know much about him other than what I read at Wikipedia, what Bob Carroll wrote at The Skeptic’s Dictionary, and a few glimpses of what I’ve heard and read here and there. Before I read the Wikipedia and Bob Carroll criticisms leveled at him for promoting some quack medicine, I already had red flags pop up in my mind of him potentially straying from mainstream science and medicine if he is endorsed by Oprah Winfrey.

She has a reputation with the scientific/medical establishment for promoting a great deal of health and medical quackery and pseudoscience. Newsweek printed an article on this last may. And David Gorski at the Science-Based Medicine blog took it even further with a post in June. She is most infamous these days to the scientific/medical community for allowing her media outlets to be a massive soap box for Jenny McCarthy to promote the claim that childhood vaccinations lead to autism. Science and medicine has not only conclusively shown this correlation to have no causation, but also this claim to be harmful to society. In recent years since Jenny McCarthy began her ill-informed anti-vaccination/anti-science pronouncements, many diseases that vaccines were successfully wiping out are on the rise again in pockets of communities in which parents choose not to vaccinate their children due to this unsubstantiated fear. (I spoke with a co-worker recently who personally told me he declined to vaccinate his son because of this fear.) The Jenny McCarthy Body Count website is exclusively dedicated to trying to counteract this unfortunate and harmful burgeoning trend.

However, I will concede that to say HFCS and sugar do not lead to “cellular inflammation” because Dr. Oz promotes it because he is endorsed by Oprah Winfrey because she notoriously promotes quack medicine is about as un-scientific of an argument as possible. It amounts to several classic logical fallacies on my part, such as the “ad hominem,” the “straw man,” and perhaps even the “non-sequitur.” Fortunately, that argument is not my position.

My position at this point is this: the Dr. Oz/Oprah/quack-medicine connection merely raises a red flag of skepticism in my mind. I will happily accept that HFCS/sugar contributes to “cellular inflammation” (whatever that means) regardless of whether or not Dr. Oz, Oprah, Jenny McCarthy, or whoever else endorses it, so long as the science shows it is so. And if science DOES show this is so, then it has to address the next issue of whether this is bad or not, and if the cons outweigh the pros, and whether the risks are greater than the benefits. But since at this point all my research indicates that science/medicine does not show this is so, then I am basically unconcerned with the claim. Just as I’m unconcerned with a whole endless slew of other untested claims that are spewed forth non-stop on a daily basis all over the world and have been going on, it seems, for millennia.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue enjoying consuming HFCS and sucrose in my regular daily diet. But I will try, as always, to do so in moderation (while brushing & flossing my teeth after), since that is the best scientific/medical consensus I can determine as of now.