Wake Up Call

Good News: Coffee Might Extend Your Life. Bad News: Sugar Might Make You Dumb

The food science news has been pretty dire the past couple of months. Our fancy beef isn't what it claims, the tacocopter was a hoax, red meat will probably kill you in your sleep, etc.

The Good News: This week, researchers at the National Cancer Institute released a study peeking at data collected by the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, which collected information on a half-million Americans between ages 50 and 71. From that data, researchers were able to suss out a correlation between people who drink coffee and people who died during the course of the study.

Wait, that doesn't sound good at all. It turns out that coffee drinkers as a whole tended to have other bad habits, like drinking and smoking. Researchers used statistical techniques to account for the other bad habits and took a look at the data again. This time they found that "Coffee consumption was inversely associated with total and cause-specific mortality." That means that people who drank coffee, but who weren't sucking down three packs of cigarettes a day, tended to not die as early as their non-coffee drinking compatriots.

As always, there are a couple of qualifiers here. 1. This is a correlation study that used a very large pool of people and some complicated math to look for relationships between coffee-drinking and death. As with all correlation studies, they don't know if this relationship is causal or if its simply associative. In other words, they can't say that coffee makes you live longer, just that people who drink coffee tend to, for whatever reason, outlive non-coffee drinkers. 2. It's not clear what in coffee, if anything, shields people from an early demise. The study doesn't speculate on what that magical ingredient(s) could be but it does say that their study and others have ruled out caffeine by itself.

So, for this week at least, coffee is good. Or at least not entirely bad for you.

The Bad News: Sugars, and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in particular, have been in the crosshairs of health advocates for decades. Now a study from researchers at UCLA suggests that maybe Jamie Oliver has a point about this whole HFCS thing being bad for you.

Working with rats, these researchers sought to discover what effects a diet high in HFCS has on the ability of rats to think and learn. At the beginning of the experiment, the researchers ran the rats through something called a Barnes Maze and let the rats run through the maze until the figured out how it worked. Then the researchers fed some of the rats a steady diet of HFCS and turned them into obese rats with metabolic syndrome. After six weeks of sucking down HFCS-infused water instead of regular water, the rats were turned loose in the same maze they had learned a month and a half earlier.

The results weren't good. In fact, let's not put too fine a point on this: The HFCS rats were demonstratively dumber than the other rats in the experiment. Not only did they have a harder time recalling how to get out of the maze, but the researchers actually observed that their brains were working more sluggishly than their counterparts. They had a marked decrease in synaptic plasticity, which is a measure of how easy it is for individual neurons to talk to one another. Even better, the HFCS rats were basically pre-diabetic by the end of their trials.

What Happened to the Other Rats: The bright spot in this study is what happened to the rats that were not sucking down rat soda instead of water. Those rats were either fed a baseline diet or a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Rats on the omega-3 diet did much better on their tests than the other two groups. Even better, omega-3s fed to the HFCS rats seemed to help mitigate the negative effects of their sugary diet.

Given that there is a fairly large body of research showing that diets rich in sugar are unsurprisingly terrible for you, perhaps now is the time to put the soda down and go for a walk. Or maybe just switch to coffee.

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Ando Muneno
Contact: Ando Muneno