Just a few weeks ago, a study was published in the Journal of Nutrition that many reports in the news media said proved that honey was no better than sugar as a sweetener, and that high-fructose corn syrup was no worse.
This shocked people on all sides of the sweetener debate. It has become an article of faith among many that natural sweeteners like honey are better for you than engineered sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup, especially for people concerned about diabetes.
Not so fast. A more careful reading of this research would note its methods. The study involved only 55 people, and they were followed for only two weeks on each of the three sweeteners. Sure, glucose and insulin levels and measures of insulin resistance were no different for honey, sugar and high fructose corn syrup. But should we really place so much faith in such a small, short-lived trial?
The truth is that research like this is the norm, not the exception. I've written about nutrition quite often here at The Upshot — about weight loss, dietary guidelines, healthy food choices, the role of exercise in weight loss, the potential benefits of coffee — and a fair amount of the time, it's to counter conventional wisdom, for example about milk, red meat or artificial sweeteners. Just a short while ago, I argued that while more recent nutritional guidelines are, perhaps, more evidence-based, they may still be straying from what we can glean from studies. Readers often ask me how myths about nutrition get perpetuated and why it's not possible to do conclusive studies to answer questions about the benefits and harms of what we eat and drink.
Almost everything we "know" is based on small, flawed studies. The conclusions that can be drawn from them are limited, but often oversold by researchers and the news media. This is true not only of the newer work that we see, but also the older research that forms the basis for much of what we already believe to be true. I'm not ignoring blockbuster studies because I don't agree with their findings; I'm usually just underwhelmed by what I can meaningfully conclude from them.