Fresh & Local
Does Sugar Make You Stupid?
Column #38, Published June 8th, 2012

There is currently a food revolution going on. Locally grown food is making permanent inroads into the food we eat, and the way we think about food.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about a study conducted by a professor at Loyola University that found that exposure to organic food makes people more judgmental. My brother-in-law Chris sent me the link to an article “Does Sugar Make You Stupid?” Since I’ve already started down this road . . .

The link Chris sent me was to an article written by Deirdre Imus on foxnews.com that supposedly summarized the findings of a UCLA study that was published in a recent issue of Journal of Physiology by Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of integrative biology and physiology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science.

Ms. Imus’s article itself was confusing and part of it didn’t make any sense. To understand why, remember that there are three dietary simple sugars (monosaccharaides): fructose, glucose and galactose. Both cane sugar (table sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup contain roughly equal amounts of fructose and glucose. The difference is that in cane sugar the fructose and glucose are chemically combined into a disaccharide (sucrose), while in high-fructose corn syrup the fructose and glucose remain separate monosaccharaides. The important point is that gram for gram, cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup have essentially the same amount of fructose.

The UCLA study explored the effect of high levels of fructose on brain activity. In her “summary” of the study, Ms. Imus went on a tirade against high-fructose corn syrup, and made it sound that the study was an indictment of high-fructose corn syrup. It was not. In fact, she ended her article by saying, “The only surefire ways to limit or remove high-fructose corn syrup from your diet is to . . .” But what about cane sugar?

I did some checking, and it turns out that Deirdre Imus is married to radio personality Don Imus, and her biography says that she is President and Founder of something called The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center at Hackensack University Medical Center (New Jersey). Environmental health?

Several years ago, Deirdre Imus wrote a book titled “Greening Your Cleaning” that was a tirade against household cleaning products. She called for "environmentally responsible" ways to clean around the house. Yesterday it was household cleaning products; today it is high-fructose corn syrup.

Don’t bother reading Deirdre Imus’s article. It misrepresents the results of the study.

The UCLA website has an interview with Fernando Gomez-Pinilla about his study. Here is the real story: This study is the first to show how a diet steadily high in fructose slows the brain, hampering memory and learning. It also suggests that omega-3 fatty acids can counteract the effects. “Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think. Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain's ability to learn and remember information.”

Fructose’s role in diabetes and obesity is already well known. This study is the first to explore how this sugar influences the brain. Rats fed high levels of fructose “developed signs of resistance to insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar and regulates synaptic function in the brain. A closer look at the rats’ brain tissue suggested that insulin had lost much of its power to influence the brain cells.”

“Insulin is important in the body for controlling blood sugar, but it may play a different role in the brain, where insulin appears to disturb memory and learning. Our study shows that a high-fructose diet harms the brain as well as the body. This is something new.”


Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at bryant@corvallisfarms.com