CBS News, others: Is fructose a super fuel for cancer?

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CBS News, others: Is fructose a super fuel for cancer?
[Via Knight Science Journalism Tracker]

I saw a couple of teasers on the web, heard a few seconds of a report on the radio, and over the past day or so, this is what I gleaned: Fructose is a particularly high-energy fuel for the growth of cancer cells.

When I dug into the coverage, what I found was quite different.

Here was David W. Freeman in the health blog on CBSnews.com:

Afraid of fructose? You may have good reason to be, as an alarming new study shows that the popular sweetener can fuel the growth of cancer.

We’ve heard plenty in recent years about high-fructose corn syrup being a special threat for the development of obesity. This, however, struck me as far more dangerous.

Here, however, is what I did not find in Freeman’s story: Glucose apparently also fuels cancer cells. That intelligence comes from a UCLA press release announcing the findings. UCLA researchers apparently found that fructose can fuel cancer cells–just as glucose can. Fructose is not a super fuel for cancer; it’s merely another one.

And not for all cancers; the study dealt exclusively with pancreatic cancer. Freeman’s expansive “fructose can fuel cancer” is way off base.

The demonization of high-fructose corn syrup by the food writer Michael Pollan and many others over most of the past decade has failed to note something I found mentioned in several of the stories yesterday and today: Table sugar, which I thought was sucrose, is roughly half glucose and half fructose–exactly the same proportions found in high-fructose corn syrup. That comes from NYU food scientist Marion Nestle, as quoted in a Salon post by Francis Lam.

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Part of the worry with fructose is that it is metabolized mainly in the liver, while glucose can be metabolized by almost any cell. This is a real difference between fructose and glucose, with high fructose ingestion having all sorts of possible effects on the liver, and its health, that glucose will not.

Glucose and fructose are not metabolized the same and may have quite different effects on all sorts of metabolic diseases. We have a lot of research looking at glucose. The work on fructose is indicating that it also has effects on metabolic diseases such as insulin resistance and diabetes, even though it has the liver as its primary site of metabolism.

2 thoughts on “CBS News, others: Is fructose a super fuel for cancer?

  1. It furthermore reveals the need for reeducation camps for science writers where there minds can be cleansed of postmodern chemistry.

  2. Unlike the news articles, you gave the study more due diligence than most. Let me add to your point that both high fructose corn syrup and table sugar having roughly equal parts of fructose and glucose. Americans get more fructose from refined sugar—or table sugar– (which contains fructose and glucose) than high fructose corn syrup, according to USDA data. More importantly, we get fructose from MANY sources in our diet, including fruits and vegetables.

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