High-fructose corn syrup study generates debate about obesity findings

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Adapted from The Post's daily health blog.

The tangled tale of the Princeton rats

Princeton University recently circulated an article announcing a study finding that rats that consumed lots of high-fructose corn syrup became obese. The authors conclude, "Translated to humans, these results suggest that excessive consumption of HFCS may contribute to the incidence of obesity."

As might have been expected, the HFCS industry quickly responded. But others with less direct interest in the outcome have voiced criticism, too, notably Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University and author of the Food Politics blog. In her entry about the study, she writes:

"I can hardly believe that Princeton sent out a press release yesterday announcing the results of this rat study. The press release says: 'Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.' How they came to these conclusions is beyond me."

Among Nestle's chief complaints: Though the study claims that all the rats consumed the same number of calories, nowhere does it actually say how many calories. Plus, the whole thing seems poorly designed, with rats consuming different combinations of HFCS, sucrose and rat chow for varying periods, making straight comparisons difficult.

I contacted Bart Hoebel, the professor at Princeton who worked with the research team. Here are excerpts from the questions I e-mailed him, and his answers:

Jennifer LaRue Huget: Can you explain how reliably rat-study results translate to humans?

Bart Hoebel: The rat is much like the human in regard to feeding behavior and basic metabolism. Rats evolved eating a diet something like ours; in some cases our own garbage. Thus the rat is a reasonable "animal model" of human feeding behavior in many cases. . . . The results do not apply directly to humans, but strongly suggest the need for more experiments along these lines.

JLH: Marion Nestle criticized the study for not being clear about the rats' calorie consumption. Can you speak to that?

BH: She says: "Although the authors say calorie intake was the same, they do not report calories consumed."

We say: Caloric intake was reported in the Results section for Experiment 1.

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