You may have read that ‘health benefits of red wine and chocolate are unfounded’, based on a single study from out of the United States.
This headline/story is no worse than any of several others, it just occurred recently so I thought I would write about it. The ‘gist’ of the story is that a study was carried out in the Chianti area of Italy, people over 65 had their approx. red wine consumption monitored over a period of time and rates of cancer, heart disease or death were recorded. Their study found that red wine did not cause people to live longer and therefore their conclusions, that red wine and chocolate health benefits overstated, and by implication, resveratrol is not effective.
Firstly some background. It should not come as much of a surprise that people using effective supplements, like resveratrol, fish oil, vitamin D etc are a threat to drug companies. Not only is resveratrol likely effective for controlling blood sugar (a finding from multiple human studies) and is being researched to see if it slows/prevents Alzheimer’s, it doesn’t have side effects like… killing you. Ditto for fish oil vs heart disease, arthritis pain, mental health etc, and vitamin D against cancer. Notwithstanding the fact that this is just a small selection of the areas these substances have been researched, this brief list covers a fair number of the things that go wrong with us as we age.
Here’s a few facts the Herald’s article (and all the places this story was reprinted) failed to mention
The amount of resveratrol they consumed per day was as little as one ten thousandth of a teaspoon. That’s right, a tea spoon is approx. 5 grams or 5,000 mg and some may have had just half a mg per day. Take a single grain of sand and split it into 5 pieces, one of those pieces was the approx. amount in resveratrol we are talking about per day. Even those who had the most would have had a volume of resveratrol approx. that of a single grain of sand.
From this miniscule amount of resveratrol per day they deduced that resveratrol has no benefits when, in fact, those who supplement with resveratrol can receive hundreds of times this amount/day.
The most significant unreported factor in the study was actually cigarette smoking. The group that had the most red wine each day, and therefore the most resveratrol (a whole grain of sands worth) did not live any longer. What the article didn’t tell you was that this group of study participants smoked at approx. 3 times the rate of the others in the study. The more they drank…the more they smoked. Nowhere in this article, or any version of this article is the word smoking ever mentioned. No one would reasonably think that a grain of sands worth of resveratrol per day should protect people from the illnesses of heavy smoking, and so a balanced article that did mention it would lose its effect.
This study was simply an attempt to set resveratrol up to fail. It was solely about generating a negative headline. They are implying that the researchers had a reasonable expectation that taking an amount of resveratrol per day, the equivalent volume of a grain of sand or less should protect you from diseases caused by heavy smoking, such as heart disease and cancer. Ands that’s simply nonsense. I am not aware of any study that suggests resveratrol protects people from smoking related illness, especially in such a miniscule non-therapeutic amount.
From the article the average casually interested, non-expert reader is led to think that they are comparing apples with apples. The article neatly and carefully obfuscates the chasm between (what is considered to be) a therapeutic dose of resveratrol (as found in supplements) and the miniscule amount of resveratrol from a glass of wine (as consumed in the study). It’s not, it’s like comparing a supertanker with a canoe, and assuming they can do the same job. On this basis alone, it’s high misleading reporting.
This is not journalism. The study behind it is not science. This is an agenda driven beat-up of a natural product that is cheap and easy for people to take, has no side effects and most likely offers many protective benefits for those who choose to use it. Don’t ignore inconvenient facts such as GlaxoSmithKline paying around $750 million USD for Sirtris, the company that did all the early resveratrol research, so resveratrol being cheap and widely used is stepping on some big toes.
So why do these misleading headlines appear?
Firstly, journalism as we might think we know it is dying. The Herald’s (and most newspapers) print circulation is declining because people can get their news from any number of sources online. This is having a major impact on revenue as most people expect to get their online news for free, and that means that like any business, they have to cut back on costs. Cheap (or free) articles, written by foreign agencies that they can effectively reprint save on journalism costs.
The net result is that many of the articles we see in New Zealand that often write harshly of certain supplements (and other subjects) are not generated by New Zealand journalists. They are little more than misleading press releases for agenda driven offshore vested interests masquerading as news.
Sensational headlines are what hook people. The formula is simple, say something controversial that challenges what people think and they will sit up and take notice. With such a fragmented media market, newspapers know that they have to scream louder than the next outlet.
It’s very hard to get balanced reporting about highly political subjects, with huge money at stake, such as medical research. There is agenda at every stage in the game. Here’s a timely quote from Chris Trotter the other day…
‘make no mistake, everything you read, watch and listen to, every newspaper article, television programme and radio broadcast, has been carefully constructed by an individual, or individuals, working consciously, or unconsciously, from well-established ideological predispositions.’
The fact that media outlets republish this sort of story with either a complete absence of critical evaluation or worse, deliberate omission of key facts says everything about the mainstream media today. If a news agency hasn’t got the resources to check the facts of the story, and to present them in a balanced way, there is no way they should be running the story. The Fourth Estate has an obligation to give people accurate information to help us make decisions in our lives. When they abdicate that responsibility for (what boils down to) commercial reasons it is a betrayal of the trust that people have placed in them, especially older people who may not be as savvy with using newer media sources, such as the internet.
Daniel King, MSc (hons)