Recent headlines highlight a study conducted by the USDA investigating if honey has the same negative health impacts as sugar and high fructose corn syrup. The study by Dr. Susan K. Raatz concludes that any source of sugar will have the same health impact; that sugar is sugar. An article discussing the study was published in the Washington Post by reporter Peter Whoriskey entitled “Honey isn’t as healthy as we think”. Subsequent articles followed with headlines such as “Honey just as bad as high-fructose corn sweetener” and “A New Study Comes Down Hard on Honey“, among dozens of others from SHAPE, Women’s Health to reposting’s on facebook and twitter by the Kitchn and even writer David Lebovitz. That was enough.
It is not just the HFCS debate that should be of concern here but the state of our health “science”; including the media bureaucracy that is controversially misleading the public. This particular study, could be considered borderline slander and deserves high scrutiny for ignoring the entire scientific pool of evidence.
Let’s go over how overly simplistic the logic is. I’m not talking lip service to a “natural” sweetener here. I’m talking about an assault against science that this can make its way to national headlines as some definite proof that HFCS is the same as every other sugar, including honey.
The very nature of this science research by the USDA is what is referred to as linear science. Linear science is reductionistic in that it finds a single cause and single outcome. In this study Kaatz looked at a short-time impact of different sources of sugar on the same health measures. In this study they especially looked at a blood fat that we know as Triglyceride, or TG. Now let’s look at their logic.
1. Fructose is found in honey and HFCS: True
2. Increased TGs represent metabolic distress (bad health): Sorta True
3. Fructose causes increased TGs: True
4. Both HFCS and Honey cause an increase in TGs equally: True
5. Therefore HFCS and Honey are equally as bad for you: False
The conclusion outlined in the study and articles is that Honey and HFCS are equally as bad for you. This is based on an increase in TGs (among other measures). However, it’s a presumptuous jump. Because an increase alone in TGs isn’t necessarily what’s bad for you. So its only sorta true that TGs represent poor health. Why? Because it is not just about an increase in TGs, it is also about their clearance from the blood. An increase is normal, them sticking around and causing havoc is not. This study only measured a short-term spike in TGs from the added sweeteners, not the long-term damage or benefits.
What makes TGs stay in the blood longer and create more damage? The answer to that in one word is stress. And what clears the stress and TGs sooner from our blood and can prevent long-term chronic health issues? If you said the anti-stress activities of antioxidants and polyphenols found in honey, you would be correct.
This is taking a Stress Perspective approach to getting to the truth of a situation. Yes, fructose causes stress. And when under stress our body takes protective measures such as increasing the amount of fat in our blood. So yes, fructose will raise biomarkers for stress, like the blood fat marker (triglycerides), no matter the source. It is the nature of fructose.
Why does fructose cause stress? Similar to what happens when we burn fuel (which is one reason why fructose can be beneficial, its a remarkable fuel source); but we also get byproducts. Those byproducts need to be cleaned up or accommodated for, so the body signals that there is a stress. How well we are able to “clean up” these byproducts and handle the stress depends upon the condition of our body and the condition of our diet. Like if our diet or foods contain antioxidants and polyphenols which “clean-up” these byproducts then while it can be a short-term stress, it can be a long term benefit. (see references below)
Honey has its own built in clean-up substances while HFCS does not.
What this interpretation of evidence clearly lacks is a full understanding of how these diseases and outcomes occur. This study, and others like it, lack the fundamental framework to understand stress dynamics. Once one takes a “stress perspective” of the total affects of the body, it becomes apparent that the “sugar is sugar” argument made by Dr. Raatz is a misleading statement, if not flat-out false. To understand how the body utilizes these simply carbohydrates, one must account for the holistic aspects of interaction and complex outcomes. Sugar exists in larger contexts. Unless a particular outcome occurs in a straight line with a single cause and outcome, it’s absurd to use reductionist principals to come to global conclusions. This study is a perfect example of the misuse of science to mislead the public.
Stress, Biomarkers and the Complex Dance
When we look at biomarkers, like TG, as the definitive answer as to whether something is healthy or not. It is the wrong way to look at stress. We don’t want to eliminate all stress parameters of the body. Quite the opposite. We want to become more resilient to stress and be able to take it on. We want stress. In this particular circumstance it may be the stress we get from a very high and efficient energy source. In regard to fructose, it could be seen as the highest grade octane fuel in nature. When consuming such a great fuel source, it comes at a cost to the body. The study and subsequent article would like for us to believe that all sugar sources are equal because they all have glucose, sucrose and most importantly here, fructose. So if there are benefits and costs, they aptly apply to all types of sources equally. However, in reality this may not be the case, because honey has the nutrients to counter that stress, clear the triglycerides from the blood and improve health in the long run. Makers of synthesized sugars such as HFCS have a vested interests in progressing this belief that honey is the same as regular sugar and HFCS. And it is of great benefit to be able to use a linear science to direct research with a limited scope. It allows them to massage the variables in such a way as to produce the results they are looking for.
This is one study that tells us a given fact, but it is not what the whole of the evidence suggests.
Can we just take antioxidants and not have the sugar?
This is a good question. Can we have just all good and none (what we consider) of the bad? Not really, we find in studies that when we give the body antioxidants indiscriminately or front-load them, it backfires, it causes more stress (stress is about accurately reading and responding to the environment). What is needed it seems is that complex dance. We need antioxidants together with the energy (calories) and stress we get from foods. We need the antioxidants to cover the energy benefits we get from sources of sugar, sources of energy that naturally come with a cost, or byproducts that create stress. Getting nothing but antioxidants from our diets would not be beneficial if we didn’t also get the stress and the needed calories from the diet. It exists in this complex balance and dance that reductionistic science doesn’t have the tools or functionality to conceptualize or map out. Linear reductionistic science can measure and find points of information, but in order to truly understand the interaction and long-term consequences we must use a Systems, or holisitic science, like stress dynamics, to put that information together.
Does honey deserve to be seen as a health food?
The answer is neither “yes” or “no”. The answer is “it depends”. It depends on what kind of stress the sugar(s) cause or abate. In most cases, honey can abate its own stress. While there are benefits to fructose, and stress can typically be attenuated by the antioxidants and polyphenols, there will be rare circumstances when honey is a contributor to metabolic stress in the body. Honey is still a high energy sugar source. Calories can tip a system into toxic distress. So in some cases it may be that any additional sugar is toxic to the system. Honey added to an already overloaded system, the antioxidants may not be enough or what’s needed to keep the balance.
The “stress dance” is of benefit to us.
However, what we see from the evidence is the potential for many benefits of honey. Evidence that honey might even be used to treat and prevent metabolic disorders. Honey may even be considered an anti-diabetic. Is there a single study that says this about HFCS?
The evidence seems to tell us that honey has health benefits beyond other sources of sugar. And HFCS, in an already poor diet with other fake fats, oils, flavorings, chemicals and deficiencies is a major contributor to our epidemics of health.
Peter Whoriskey tells us in his article that The Mayo Clinic, the FDA and “many health authorities, say that evidence of any potential harm from HFCS, at least relative to other sweeteners, is scant at best” and “At this time, there’s insufficient evidence to say that high-fructose corn syrup is any less healthy than other types of sweeteners.”
I agree that it is tough for any of these organizations to make any solid statements… how could they, they aren’t even using the correct scientific framework yet.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
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