An article by Mark Hyman, MD with the above title has been broadly distributed across the Internet: you can easily find dozens of copies. If I go down to my local Stop and Shop and buy, say, Coca-Cola, with HFCS in it, am I killing myself? Nonsense! Hyman’s article is full of basic scientific errors as well as substantial errors of fact. What he has written is sensational, but utterly wrong.
While Hyman is indeed a physician, he is not a research scientist, and he has gone deeply into something called “functional medicine,” which is the sort of woo you find on alternative medicine sites.
Alternative medicine is a collection of things we don’t know work and things we know don’t work.
Functional medicine is not science-based medicine. Further, Hyman’s web site is a vehicle for him to peddle pills, books and supplements; he is certainly not the sort of physician we would recommend anyone consult, since many of his ideas are nonsense.
Hyman’s shrill article accusing the Corn Manufacturer’s Association of “deception,” a “misinformation campaign,” and “twisted sweet lies.” Not exactly a sober scientific report! In fact, it contains only two scientific references, one of them discredited and the other retracted.
Hyman starts out in his preamble claiming that HFCS is a major cause of heart disease, obesity, cancer, dementia, liver failure, tooth decay, “and more.” The only links are to other articles of his, none of which even mention HFCS.
Here are some of the errors in the major points in his article:
- He claims that HFCS is an industrial food product extracted from corn by a process so secret that ADM and Cargill (which he misspells) would not allow author Michael Pollan to observe. Rubbish! The details of HFCS production have been known for years, and are readily available, even on Wikipedia. The details of a specific industrial process may indeed be secret, but this is true throughout the consumer products industry.
- He calls the result a chemically and biologically novel compound, when as he admits one paragraph later, it is just of mixture of glucose and fructose. It is not a compound and hardly novel.
- HFCS contains contaminants including mercury. This is based on a discredited undergraduate paper we’ve discussed before. They did find traces of mercury in HFCS: but only the traces you’d expect to occur naturally.
- When HFCS is run through a chemical analyzer (a what?) or gas chromatograph “strange chemical peaks” show up that are not glucose or fructose. Maybe the technician that did this work didn’t know what these peaks were, but nowadays gas chromatographs are routinely coupled with mass spectrometers, and identification of each peak is not difficult. We have no idea what a “chemical analyzer is,” (nor does Hyman) but reporting that someone cannot identify a peak from a gc is simply silly.
- He credits Barry Popkin for suggesting that metabolism of glucose and fructose differ and this may contribute to obesity. In fact, Popkin did not say that. In an interview in the NY Times, he said this was an hypothesis “meant to spur on further research.” And in this same article, Prof Walter Willet, chairman of the nutrition department at Harvard made it clear that:
There’s no substantial evidence to support the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is somehow responsible for obesity.
- HFCS is almost always a marker of poor-quality, nutrition-poor disease creating industrial food products. Poor quality foods, perhaps, but HFCS is used by bakers and candy makers who make high-quality products as well. And as far as “disease creating,” this is in no way established.
- Shocking new evidence on how HFCS can trigger body wide inflammation and obesity. This statement is based on a lunch meeting with Dr Bruce Ames. Unfortunately, there are no papers published on this by Ames anyone at his research center. This seems to be pure hyperbole.
The idea that a solution of fructose and glucose is processed differently by the body than a solution of sucrose (table sugar) has had a lot of discussion, both by Hyman and others, but thus far there is no evidence for it. There is an interesting hypothesis begin generated in this area that we learned about in a phone conference with Dr Mark Shigenaga, who is in the same research group as Bruce Ames. Here is a recent paper on his work.However it is contradicted in a critical review by Stanhope.
The amount of heat any discussion of HFCS continues to generate is astonishing considering how little actual research there is in this area. Hyman’s scare article does nothing to improve the situation.
- 5 Reasons HFCS Can Kill You (Hyman’s version)
- Science-based medicine : functional medicine
- HFCS, the myths continue
- A sweetener with a bad rap (NY Times)
- Consumption of HFCS may lead to obesity (Popkin and Bray)