FoodPolitik: Hysterical Huffington hype

Richard Berman | President, Berman and Company

You don’t need a Media Research Center report to know that The Huffington Post hosts a wide variety of crazed and rabid political opinions. (Maybe that’s why AOL’s stock is near a 52-week low.) It should come as no surprise, then, that HuffPo isn’t exactly a credible or unbiased source of nutrition advice either.

You’ll find all kinds of special cases there, from anti-meat animal rights activists like Wayne Pacelle and Bruce Friedrich to someone who runs a site called “Eating Liberally.”

If you thought “progressive” politics were bad, just wait ’til you read “progressive” food manifestos. (For some background, see my previous column about Mark Bittman.) Today’s for-your-own-good lefty food vanguard bashes practically everything containing calories, but one of their most idiotic blind spots is reserved for high fructose corn syrup, a sugar made from corn.

One recent HuffPo essay is actually titled “5 Reasons High Fructose Corn Syrup Will Kill You.”  It’s signed by an MD, so it ought to be pretty solid, right?

It’s not. The author largely bases his conclusion on a 2004 study which speculated that HFCS might be a unique cause of obesity. But the study’s own authors have since recanted that idea. One of them even said: “A number of recent studies … have convinced me that HFCS does not affect weight gain.”

Another HuffPo piece about the “dangers” of high fructose corn syrup comes from a self-identified “psychotherapist and mom.” Another author, who calls corn sugar “our melamine,” pulls out a deeply flawed and agenda-driven report from a fringe organic activist group — a study that was quickly skewered by a leading toxicologist from Duke University. (FoodPolitik: Laughable food initiatives abound in California)

And then there’s Joseph Mercola, a doctor of osteopathy (not the same as an MD) and health-product shill described in a BusinessWeek commentary as a “snake oil salesman.” (The Food and Drug Administration has actually censured Mercola.)

Mercola has few kind words for high fructose corn syrup, but ironically promotes “Pure Gold Raw Honey” on his website. Honey and high fructose corn syrup are nearly nutritionally identical.

Starting to get the picture? The hype about high fructose corn syrup is largely the work of Internet bloggers and rumor-mongers, and quite a few of them have found a home in HuffPo’s unfiltered sandbox. They’re not experts. They don’t even play them on TV.

Real nutrition experts are out there. And they’re not in the sweetener-bashing business.

The American Medical Association says “high fructose syrup does not appear to contribute more to obesity than other caloric sweeteners.” The American Dietetic Association adds: “Studies consistently found little evidence that HFCS differs uniquely from sucrose [table sugar].”

Why should you care about all this not-so-sweet squabbling? Some companies are beginning to side with the lunatics.

If you’ve visited a grocery store recently, you’ve already seen examples of major food brands casting their lot with the psychotherapists and osteopaths. More than a few have announced that they’re swapping out high fructose corn syrup for “natural” or “real” sugar.

Can anyone show me why sugar cane or sugar beets are more “real” or “natural” than an ear of corn? Harvard University medical professor David Ludwig apparently can’t. “The decision to switch from HFCS to cane sugar,” Ludwig writes, “is 100% marketing and 0% science.”

The Huffington Post’s food psychosis doesn’t stop at sweeteners, of course. (That wouldn’t be very democratic.) HuffPo also features user-submitted screeds about why some foods are as “addictive” as hard drugs (Twinkie rehab?) and why weight gain is socially “contagious” (Um — what?).

The big message isn’t just about the remarkably low standards the Huffington Post seems to have for opinion writers. Some of HuffPo’s content is just fine, and it’s generally a good thing to air a diversity of opinion and let the marketplace of ideas sort it out.

But on a subject as integral to American life as food, HuffPo’s dynamic range seems to be pretty narrow, ranging from wacky to wing-nut. The least we should expect from self-anointed arbiters of everything is a little bit of common sense.

Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit http://www.BermanCo.com.

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