Does a Link Exist Between High-fructose Corn Syrup and Autism?

Written by P. Humbargar

Edited by A. Noelle

The potential link between high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and obesity has been in the press for some time now, and recently, a paper published in the journal, ClinicalEpigenetics, entitled “A macroepigenetic approach to identify factors responsible for the autism epidemic,” purports to have also found a possible link between HFCS and autism.

Image: Keerati

This month, two articles posted on Grist.org addressed the issues raised in this paper from two very different perspectives. The first article, “Paper asks: Does high-fructose corn syrup contribute to a rise in autism?” essentially agrees with the study’s troubling conclusion—that there is a very real link between HFCS consumption and autism. The second article, “Why that corn-syrup-and-autism study leaves such a sour taste,” on the other hand, argues that the paper is based on a false premise, with unscientific and fragile arguments attempting to link autism and HFCS.

The paper published in Clinical Epigenetics is highly technical and probably incomprehensible to anyone without a solid background in biology. And since the two articles cited above draw radically different conclusions, where does this leave the average consumer when it comes to making choices about foods containing HFCS? I will attempt to sort this out by highlighting some of the main points in each of the two Grist articles.

According to the first article’s author, Tom Laskawy, the study’s argument is complicated and deeply disturbing: “[it] pieces together what’s known about the genetic and metabolic factors involved with autism, including the growing evidence of a link between autism and mercury and organophosphate pesticide exposure.” In a nutshell, HFCS can interfere with the body’s uptake of certain minerals, and this, combined with other mineral deficiencies, can cause susceptible individuals to develop autism. The author goes on to say that the paper shifts the HFCS debate in an unexpected and troubling way—that eating highly processed foods may have alarming genetic effects. The article concludes by saying that the problem with HFCS isn’t just the role it’s had in the obesity epidemic, but that “[perhaps] it’s also an important factor in the worst mental health epidemic of the day.”

The author of the second article, Emily Willingham, has a very different opinion regarding the study’s findings. First, she points out that the paper is not a study—it is a review of existing literature with no original research presented. She sees several “red flags of pseudoscience” in the paper, with imprecise, vague scientific terminology. Willingham backs up her arguments with compelling, somewhat technical data that I won’t go into here. Essentially, she believes that the paper begins with the fallacy that autism is an “epidemic,” and that the consumption of HFCS is linked to the increasing autism rates. She states that the increasing rate of autism is due, instead, to the shifts of students from the intellectual disability and speech disorder categories to autism. The data presented in her article appears to back up this conclusion.

So, again, where does this leave the average consumer who is continually bombarded with foods containing HFCS? Is this just flawed research—another example of “much ado about nothing” that we can dismiss, or should we rid our pantries of HFCS products at once? The jury is still out and likely will be for some time, regarding the potential dangers of HFCS. As with anything, moderation seems to be the rational choice; so, although avoiding products containing HFCS altogether may not be necessary, there is no need to overload on them either. Being aware of and teaching our children about good and bad food choices is what is most important. And the excessive consumption of sugary processed foods, whether containing HFCS or not, is a bad food choice everyone can agree on.

If you would like to read the first article, “Paper asks: Does high-fructose corn syrup contribute to a rise in autism?” in its entirety, click here.

For the second article, “Why that corn-syrup-and-autism study leaves such a sour taste,” on Grist, click here.

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