Yet again it seems that mass media is not accurately portraying scientific research. This time the research is by Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a professor of integrative biology and physiology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science. The headlines are claiming that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) damages memory or “makes you stupid“. Unfortunately, the study was not done with a control group on a regular diet, just rats eating HFCS and other rats eating HFCS with omega-3 fatty acids, so it is difficult to draw any solid conclusions from the research.
When trying to navigate a maze learned six weeks earlier, the rats that had only been eating HFCS “were slower, and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats’ ability to think clearly and recall the route they’d learned six weeks earlier,” according to researcher Gomez-Pinilla. This could imply that:
- HFCS causes memory loss
- Or it could be interpreted that HFCS interferes with focus and attention span
- Or it could mean that omega-3 fatty acids counteract the harmful effects of HFCS
With two variables and no control group, I am not willing to buy into any of these theories just yet. I would like to see additional research done with control groups. I would like to see further research where the rats are allowed to continue to train in the maze while on their altered diets. I believe that would be a better indicator to show if HFCS interferes with learning, not just recall.
It is natural to reach for something sweet when you are stressed because sweet foods generally give us a quick boost of energy. I often want to munch when I am thinking hard about the best way to phrase a blog, although raw almonds are the snack of choice that I keep in my desk. I know I am not the only one who grabs a snack when thinking about a difficult problem. Many college students also like to eat while they study, but I would venture that many are reaching towards more processed foods that could contain HFCS. It is possible that while snacks may give them energy to continue studying late into the night, if the snacks contain HFCS it could be interfering with their learning and recall.
Unfortunately, we don’t yet know if the correlation recorded in this research is dependent on HFCS or omega-3 fatty acids. While I would not suggest eating food products containing HFCS while trying to learn and think clearly, I would never suggest eating food products that contain HFCS. It is on my short list of contraband items. Whether you reach for almonds or an apple (which gives more energy than a cup of coffee), simple whole foods are like premium fuel for your brain and body.
June 6th, 2012