A Yale Study on Sugar and Our Brains Stirs Up Controversy

Medical ResearchScienceYale UniversityConsumer Goods IndustriesMedicineFood IndustryYale School of Medicine

Robert Sherwin was a little shocked by the stormy reaction to a study released in early January by his team of scientists at Yale University's School of Medicine. He shouldn't have been. Their report dropped smack in the middle of a nasty national debate over food and the obesity epidemic.

"I guess I was a little bit naïve," he says now. "It was a much hotter topic than I appreciated."

One indication of how high the heat is on this sort of thing is the fact that the American Beverage Association (ABA) is now going to court to try and block New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's planned ban on super-sized soda sales.

The ABA is also fighting proposals from food activists across the nation for higher taxes on the high-sugar products (like Coca Cola and Pepsi) of their members.

The topic of the Yale study was high fructose corn syrup, which has become a major ingredient in all sorts of sodas and other high-calorie food products and a major target for activists fearful of what our diet is doing to us.

The storm of controversy erupted when the Yale research indicated fructose seems to produce a reaction in the brain that can convince the body to keep eating even when it's not really hungry.

There were national headlines, howls of "I told you so" from anti-obesity folks, and immediate efforts by the American Beverage Association and other Big Food Industry types to downplay the results.

According to the scientists involved, everybody may be overreacting.

Sherwin is section chief of endocrinology at the Yale School of Medicine and the lead scientist in the study.

His team used "functional magnetic resonance imaging" on the brains of 20 people to see what happened when they consumed fructose or glucose (the dominant ingredient in ordinary table sugar).

The results showed that, while glucose appears to convince the brain that the body was feeling full and didn't need to consume more food or drink, the brain's reaction to fructose was different.

Sherwin says the results indicate that fructose doesn't give the sections of the brain that govern appetite the same signal that the body is full. "We're beginning to see there are striking differences," he says.

That doesn't mean lawmakers should, as some advocate, ban high-fructose corn syrup from the food chain.

"A ban on fructose? No, I wouldn't say that at the moment," he adds. "Fructose is cheaper [than regular table sugar], making it easier to feed people."

The real villain in the obesity crisis isn't just high fructose corn syrup, Yale scientists agree, even though the fact that it's cheap may account for it being the most common sweetener found in packaged and processes foods in this country.

Americans are consuming far too many calories of all types of sugar, says Richard Kibbey, an assistant professor of endocrinology at Yale School of Medicine.

Oddly enough, the ABA agrees. Sort of.

In an email sent to CBS News, ABA officials warned the Yale findings "should be kept in perspective... The researchers gave 20 adults a beverage sweetened with either fructose or glucose — neither of which are found alone in any sweetened beverage."

 

ghladky@newhavenadvocate.com

Follow @GregoryBHladky on Twitter

 

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