Autism and high-fructose corn syrup: Grist for the misinformation mill

Last week, the website Grist got themselves into a sticky mess with the publication of this article:


Paper asks: Does high-fructose corn syrup contribute to a rise in autism?

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.

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.

Originally cited as a “study”, it wasn’t that at all. This response, also on Grist rips it apart.
Why that corn-syrup-and-autism study leaves such a sour taste

Problem No. 1: This isn’t a study. It is, as the abstract itself says and as the journal, Clinical Epigenetics, has labeled it, a review. That means a review of existing literature, not a study, with no original research presented, much less “suggestive” research. In other words, all those headlines — including Grist’s original one, which has now been rewritten — blaring about a “study” finding a “link”? There is no study, and there’s no link or association or relationship established in this paper between autism and HFCS consumption. In fact, as you will see below, the two don’t even share a trend.

This paper begins with a fallacy — an autism “epidemic” — and unfolds an extraordinarily unscientific and fragile argument in an attempt to link autism and HFCS. I don’t even need to get into addressing their claims about HFCS here because the data suggest no reason to do so. The authors’ review and their model are both based on air.

Tip: @stevesilberman on Twitter

This rebuttal, well worth a read, also notes that autism is a hot topic. While the genuine reasons for the growth in prevalence of the condition are related to

…expanded diagnosis, greater awareness and recognition, and shifts from other special education labels to autism. That hasn’t stopped some researchers and peer-reviewed journals from using autism as a way to grab headlines, and it doesn’t stop anyone from linking just about anything to autism.

Indeed. And it’s confusing the heck out of people. Take a look at the comments to any story on autism and you will see people suggesting “there is something to it” for EVERY possible cause, wacky has no upper limit. When the real reason for a serious health issue is complicated and not simple to explain in a sound byte, you will get people assigning it to one thing for simplicity sake. It’s the thing they want to hate: vaccines, mercury, HFCS, pesticides, technology, HAARP. Whatever. The misinformation is making people scared of all the wrong things. That’s no help when we need to expand understanding rather than rumor mongering.

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