Photo by Robert Bradley.

I know what you’re thinking: “Tom, it’s been ages since you wrote about high-fructose corn syrup.” And you’re right! It has. But as I’m feeling petulantly defiant, I think it’s time to take another look at America’s favorite sweetener. You see, while the HFCS industry still claims there’s no difference between how the body handles HFCS and sugar, a new study has come out suggesting just the opposite. And in a very big way.

The blaring headline version of the new study’s conclusion would read: “High-Fructose Corn Syrup Causes Autism.”

And while that may be a bit of an overstatement, it’s not off by much. In a provocative new peer-reviewed study published in Clinical Epigenetics, researchers led by a former FDA toxicologist purport to have found a very real link between HFCS consumption and autism.

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The study’s argument is complicated but 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.

Essentially, HFCS can interfere with the body’s uptake of certain dietary minerals — namely zinc. And that, when combined with other mineral deficiencies common among Americans, can cause susceptible individuals to develop autism.

The basic idea is that the protein that’s in charge of eliminating heavy metals from the human body requires zinc to function. But HFCS interferes with the body’s ability to absorb zinc, which causes the protein to be less effective and may also reduce the amount of that protein in the body. An increased heavy metal load in the body — especially when first experienced at the fetal stage — can start a chain of genetic disturbances that affect development. HFCS also interferes with calcium absorption (and not just because soda is displacing milk as the drink of choice for young kids). Calcium is crucial to elimination of organophosphate pesticides, which are also linked to developmental disorders like autism.

Now, this is just one paper. And a full understanding of it requires far more expertise in biology and genetics than I possess. But I certainly think it shifts the HFCS debate in an unexpected and troubling way. Industry wants to us to believe that if no harm is proven, no harm is done. Yet scientists are discovering ways that highly processed foods, foods we did not evolve eating, may have alarming genetic effects.

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The fact is there may never be a smoking gun with HFCS — or with the other techno-foods like GMOs, for that matter. Science might only ever be able to suggest second- or even third-order effects from consuming these substances. As the food industry loves to remind us: No one is dropping dead from acute HFCS poisoning.

Yet, as the authors of a recent study on the links between endocrine disrupting chemicals like BPA and obesity and diabetes observed, it is all but impossible to prove a direct link between chemicals that affect us through chronic, low-level exposure and the health effects they are thought to cause.

Not only is it unethical to construct experiments designed to make humans sick, but the complexity of human metabolism and the tens of thousands of chemicals that we are routinely exposed to complicate the picture beyond science’s ability to deconstruct.

So we’re left with suggestive research that always “requires further study.” And whatever the results, it will likely never be enough to satisfy the food industry — nor the government regulators they lobby. The data will always seem insufficient to justify a ban. An alternative is to move toward a more aggressive use of the “precautionary principle,” as they have in Europe. But that would definitely increase government regulation — and that just isn’t an option in 21st century America.

What the industry is really concerned about, however, is branding. In fact, two years ago the Corn Refiners Association came up with the brilliant idea of dropping high fructose and simply referring to HFCS as “corn sugar.” They filed a name-change petition with the FDA as required by law and figured they were home free. Not so. In fact, the public health community has stepped up in force. USA Today reported just this week that a coalition of 100 consumer groups, including the National Consumers League, Consumers Union, and the Consumer Federation of America, is demanding that the FDA deny the Corn Refiners petition since, as the article puts it, “the new name is just a ploy to confuse consumers who want to avoid it.”

The reporter spent a bit of time explaining that HFCS and table sugar are substantially the same — even quoting nutritionist Marion Nestle, who said: “This isn’t about science, this is about people eating too much sugar.” Nestle went on to say that anything the industry does to hide the sweeteners in processed food is a bad thing. No doubt that’s true.

But maybe, just maybe, the problem with HFCS isn’t just its ubiquity, nor the subsequent role it’s had in the obesity epidemic. Perhaps it’s also an important factor in the worst mental health epidemic of the day. Either way, it doesn’t look like we’ll be taking HFCS off the market — or out of the food kids eat — anytime soon. So if you’ll excuse me, I have some deck chairs to rearrange.

Editor’s Note: The headline originally posted with this story overstated how conclusive the findings of the study described actually are. We’ve changed it. For more of an explanation, see this post. And for another view of the autism-and-HFCS question, see this post.