Grist: Autism Linked to Corn Syrup

When it comes to climate change, Grist (like many green advocacy outlets), is quick to pounce on media stories it deems substandard. A recent example is this slapdown from Grist’s executive editor, titled:

How Huffington Post aided a demolition job on climate science

Well, it turns out that Grist has a wrecking ball of its own, in the form of an article headlined:

New Study links autism to high-fructose corn syrup

Yes, you read that right.

The Grist writer, Tom Laskawy, gives this overview:

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  [high fructose corn syrup] 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.

It gets better. A little further down, the author admits:

Now, this is just one paper. And a full understanding of it requires far more expertise in biology and genetics than I possess.

Next breath comes this:

But I certainly think it shifts the HFCS debate in an unexpected and troubling way.

If you really want to know how troubled the whacky debate over corn syrup is, here’s the backstory.

As for the current Grist post, some readers pushed back on Laskawy’s obvious bias. Here’s one blistering retort:

This is EXTREMELY irresponsible!  First of all, even if the authors of this study made a good case for a correlation between HFCS exposure and autism (which they don’t), they would still have a lot of explaining and research to do before claiming that HFCS consumption played any role in autism.

The entire study was unnecessary in the first place as the previous study the authors mention linking expression of their gene of interest to OP exposure is very robust.  They basically come right out and admit that they just have strong personal feelings (and no supporting data) that autism is caused by diet. In addition, their hypothesis relies on their previously developed mercury toxicity model which has already been thoroughly discredited.  The whole article absolutely reeks of the foregone conclusion that diet plays a critical role in autism and the author declares that he has a competing interest in that he’s worked with lawsuits related to autism.

By writing an article about this terrible study and giving it such a misleading title you are revealing yourself as either a) too stupid to be trusted with the responsibility of writing about science or b) willing to knowingly mislead the public in the service of your irrational personal hatred of HFCS.

Another reader picked up on something mentioned in the study that Laskawy apparently missed or willfully ignored:

And this is something I’m sure Grist would point out if a paper was funded by Big Corn: “Funding for this research project was provided primarily by donations to the Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute” which is the lead author’s organization.

It’s good that Grist is on the lookout for inferior climate science coverage at other publications. Perhaps it should be more alert to the shoddy and irresponsible science journalism practiced in its own house.

UPDATES: Since putting up my brief post, I’ve become aware of other critiques on Twitter and elsewhere. For example, here is John Timmer of Ars Technica, tweeting here and here. Also, ace science writer Deborah Blum weighed in at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

21 Responses to “Grist: Autism Linked to Corn Syrup”

  1. laursaurus says:

    How about we engineer some genetically modified corn that reverses autism? I’ll be happy to taste test!

  2. laursaurus says:

    That was a joke!
    If we compare the decline in smokers it also correlates with the obesity rate, number vaccinations, and the autism rate. Should we all start smoking to reverse these alarming trends?
    (also TIC)

  3. willard says:

    Bloody bastards!

  4. Mary says:

    I have tried to read the paper a couple of times and failed. It is confusing and offers a lot of correlations that need to be examined, and I didn’t have the time yet–and I’ll probably have trouble accessing the obscure papers they claim support their ideas. But I also know it rests a lot on their prior work, which has been profoundly ignored (not cited by anyone) or when it was examined it was challenged for low quality.

    It also makes up a word that nobody else uses (macroepigenomics). I’m in genomics. Nobody I talked to has any idea what that means. You can take the class the author offers on her website, but it must cost something because it requires a login. I couldn’t figure it out.

  5. BobN says:

    Here’s the problem.  These “researchers” apparently don’t know much about the chemistry of HFCS.  It is essentially the same as regular table sugar, Sucrose.  Sucrose is 50% glucose and 50% fructose.  HFCS comes in two varieties: HFCS55, used in sodas, is 55% percent fructose and ~43% sucrose; and HFCS42, used in processed foods and baked goods, which is 42% fructose and 53% sucrose.  Yes, there are differences in how the body metabolizes fructose and glucose but one would have to be ingesting massive amounts of  sugary products for these minor differences in the proportion of glucose and fructose to make any difference.

  6. Thanks for the post. We’ll be addressing this today. –Scott RosenbergExecutive editor, Grist 

  7. BobN says:

    Okay, read the paper.  Retract my comment regarding chemistry of HFCS;  According to the paper, it doesn’t have to do with the makeup of HFCS but alleged pesticide residues.  Still don’t buy there arguments since no hard data on the actual levels of exposure is provided.

  8. D. Robinson says:

    My wife is a child development expert with years of experience treating autistic kids.  She doesn’t comment on whether or not more kids are being afflicted with autism, but she’s 100% sure that more kids are being diagnosed as ‘on the spectrum’.

    10 years ago doctors & neurologists were very reluctant to label a child as autistic, now they are much more likely to do so.  Diagnosing a child as autistic (or having x syndrome or y complex) helps get more treatments approved through health insurance as opposed to just saying a child needs help developmentally or with social skills. 
    Therefore standardized tests are being more widely administered than they ever have been.

    So how much of the increase in diagnosed cases of autism is just due to testing & detection, and how much has it actually increased?

  9. Keith Kloor says:

     D. Robinson (8)

    Your comment speaks to the hyped autism “epidemic” angle to this story, that has become an unfortunate media meme. 

  10. D. Robinson says:

    Keith – Yes I honestly don’t know if any statistician could determine if the number of cases has actually increased or not.  ‘On the spectrum’ casts a very wide net.  If you can’t reliably count the historical number of cases, you can’t use statistics to determine the cause of autism.

    The vaccine angle actually concerned us for a while, and we vaccinated our now 10 year old on a modified schedule of separate vaccines, all vaccines just separate (poor kid!) and without the mercury preservative.  Then that study turned out to be crap before we had our second child, so at least she got fewer shots.

  11. MarkB says:

    The environmental movement has scared the bejesus out of people, and has a lot to answer for. Go on to any gardening web site and read the paranoid rants of your average ‘organic’ gardener. ‘Chemicals’ are out to get them. I just read on Youtube a comment concerned about using water from a rain barrel – because the rain came off asphalt shingles. I’m not sure where this person thought rain has been going for the last hundred years, but apparently he/she assumed it didn’t reach the soil of his/her garden. People have been taught to assume the worst as a sort of a virtue. Like the women who have a baby, and immediately get rid of every cleaner under their sink. Chemicals! They stake a claim to virtue by protecting their spawn from ‘chemicals.’ Or course, hundreds of millions have lived with those same chemicals with no effect. Go figure.

  12. Martha says:

    I’m not sure this article evidences understanding of the core research question, or the overall health, food, farm, trade and children’s rights issues informing it.  Basically, the research question is this:  Can environmental, genetic and nutritional factors combine to produce health problems? 
    The approach used in the study is probably  more good than bad for those with knowledge of the limitations of classic epidemiology, which can fail to look at interactive factors or the interplay of factors that can produce health issues. 
    Good science in any field is both innovative and competent.  And it need not be separated from children’s rights and advocacy.  
    Grist:  one point.  Kloor:  zero.
    Yes, the proliferation of medicalization, changing diagnostic criteria, additional services, etc. can all contribute to the increase of an incident rate.  So do labeling issues that capture problems similar to autistic behaviours.       That said, I wonder if the research even needs to make a claim about the rate of either classic autism or cases of autism spectrum disorder, or both, to make a general positive contribution to our awareness of the interplay between modern health, food and farm issues in society.

  13. Howard says:

    Martha: I agree with your point about limits of epidemiology.  Some aspects of it could be classified as pseudoscience.  Unfortunately, much of limitations are inherent to the subject because of the pesky ethical constraints of doing double-blind human toxicology studies unless you call the toxin medicine.When parents are dealing with a sick (very broad meaning implied) kid, paranoia, desperation and irrational grasping at nostrums while seeking blame can be uncontrollable.  Publications like Grist make a habit of serving up easy answers to terrified readers.  This is not unlike the Faux Schmooze right-wing fear-mongering over pissed-off poor people of color, drugs, homosexuality and Muslim countries.  In some cases, there may be partial or total truth to the inflammatory stories.  The best falsehoods lurk close to the truth.Sugar and pesticides are nasty chemicals at the right dose.  You are spot on that very little is known about the synergy of multiple low dose toxic/cancerous/mutagenic exposures that piggy-back onto high doses of sugar, alcohol, beef fat, lard, etc.I think there is a high degree of cynicism for extraordinary claims due to the chicken little syndrome.  I would normally tend to agree with Keith on this, but your point about limits of epidemiology spun my head around.  Obviously more research is needed.  However, new ways of quantifying chronic exposures to thousands of contaminants definitely needs to be developed.

  14. Keith Kloor says:

    I’ve updated the post (at end) with some additional responses from other science journalists.

  15. hunter says:

    Martha, that is not the question. The question is why do self-declared progressives come up with consistently irresponsible garbage and dress it up as science? Grist is a garbage organization selling lies with a sciencey veneer. Lying to make the false claim that HFCS is somehow causing autism is not addressing the question you claim is significant at all, unless you are asserting that your posed question is deceptive.

  16. Fred says:

    Someone should dispassionately explore whether there is any more “evidence” for HFCS causing autism than there is for CO2 causing harmful warming. Both seem to be fairly fatuous claims.

  17. laursaurus says:

    So what happened to #6? The article is still up at Grist. And the comments have devolved to the OMG! ban corn syrup ASAP!!!

  18. Mary says:

    Unreal–I can’t believe I’m saying this: Grist actually did publish rebuttal. I fear the comment threads, but good on them for doing this.

    Why that corn-syrup-and-autism study leaves such a sour taste

    It’s the first trustworthy piece related to food I think I’ve seen there. And I know plant scientists have tried to get their say in the past. I don’t know how she did it…Yay to Emily Willingham!

  19. laursaurus says:

    Thanks for posting the link, Mary. I kept checking Grist all weekend for the promised clarification and gave up.
    I’m very impressed with the integrity displayed

  20. Keith Kloor says:

    Mary (18)

    I had thought that Grist might turn to Emily for a rebuttal of the study. Glad to see it up there at Grist. Also, Scott Rosenberg, the executive editor, has a related post addressing the criticism of the Laskway piece, which is not bad. I’m of a mixed mind on it. Part of me understands it–he’s trying not to pile on his writer, while also acknowledging the legitimacy of the criticism. I admire this. Every writer wants his editor to have his/her back. That said, as I tweeted to Scott, I thought the decent thing to do would be to link to some of the critiques made of the original post. Instead, Scott just vaguely references them.

    Oh well. All in all, taken together, this is a big step forward for Grist.

  21. Mary says:

    Yeah, I hope it’s the first of a trend–but am withholding judgment until I see more evidence. I know some plant scientists who have begged for rebuttal opportunities there for years, and finally just gave up because Gristies are so resistant to plant science facts.

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