The truth about antioxidants and its coverage in Indian newspapers

Times of India (TOI) published an article today which claimed that guava is the healthiest fruit and pineapple is the least! 

The claim is based on a study that evaluated ‘the amount of natural antioxidants level of [sic] 14 fresh fruits commonly consumed in India’. The article cited the study that was published in Food Research International, an Elsevier journal. But surprisingly when I looked up the paper it appeared that the results of the study were published in May 2010!

Antioxidants have been featured as a healthy choice for a long time. An article in Slate mentions that the story began in the 1940s when Denham Harman proposed that ‘the same free radicals that were cutting into petroleum industry profits could also simply and completely explain the phenomenon of aging. Better yet, he said, their effects could be ameliorated by something called antioxidants’.

As tempting as the theory seems, unfortunately as the same article points out, there is no evidence of antioxidants inducing any health benefits. Instead, a meta-analysis of studies that assess the effect of antioxidant supplements on mortality showed that ‘treatment with beta carotene, vitamin A and vitamin E may increase mortality. The potential roles of vitamin C and selenium on mortality needs further study.’

Having previously read the article in Slate, when I came across the article in TOI it struck me as odd that a 18-month old research paper suddenly seemed to surfaces in not only Indian newspapers but also in a British and a Malaysian newspaper within 24 hours. I got in touch with the lead researcher on the paper, Dr. Sreeramulu, congratulating him and expressing my surprise. He responded quickly and said, “Yesterday they contacted me about the work (and) today (the) article appeared in Times of India. (In the) morning my friend informed me about this.” I also, asked him who funded his research, to which he said, “I am a regular staff member of NIN (National Institute of Nutrition), Hyderabad. Our Institute funded the work as (an) intramural project.”

I asked him about the funding of the project given that the antioxidant market worldwide is pretty big. According to a report it has been growing at ~4% annually with reported sales of $3.7 billion in 2007 (the slate article calls it a $23 billion industry but I couldn’t find the source for that). Having not got any satisfactory answer to the reason why TOI showed sudden interest, I thought it might be worth looking at what the coverage of antioxidants in top Indian newspapers.

Here are the search results for ‘antioxidants’ on TOIHindustan Times & The Hindu websites.

Sure enough I got plenty of articles mentioning the many studies that show antioxidants do wonderful things and many that reported the extraordinary antioxidant content in some foods. But amongst all that noise I found only three articles that mentioned studies showing adverse effects or no effects (here,here & here).

The lack of coverage of the studies showing adverse effects or no effects can be attributed to the fact that may be fewer such studies are reported but that would be a mistake. That alone cannot account for the dismal numbers. The answer then may be lies in the fact that the media has a bias towards publishing ‘feel-good’ stories, especially in the health section. But it might also be equally due to some media houses doing favours for big supplements manufacturers.

I wouldn’t lament about all this much if only next time when an article about antioxidants is written they give the reader a balanced view. A simple sentence such as, ‘conventional wisdom claims the positive effects of antioxidants but many studies have shown no-effect and in some cases, harmful effects in the use of antioxidants’ can be included to that effect.

Alas! I cannot expect such things from Indian newspapers, can I? And, of course, the mystery of why world media suddenly showed in the story also remains unsolved.

Asteroids likely source of Earth’s water

Bad Science examples from the media: Indian Express, April 29, 2010

Ice asteroids likely source of Earth’s water: Study

Astronomers have for the first time detected ice and organic compounds on an asteroid, a pair of landmark studies.

The discovery bolsters the theory that comets and asteroids crashing into Earth nearly four billion years ago seeded the planet with water and carbon-based molecules, both essential ingredients for life.

Working separately, two teams of scientists using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii found that the 24 Themis, which orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, is literally covered in a thin coating of frost.

It had long been suspected that the massive space rocks that bombarded our planet after the formation of the solar system contained frozen water, but the two studies, published in Nature, provide the first hard evidence.

Still, a mystery remained: How could frozen water persist over billions of years on an asteroid hot enough to vapourise surface ice?

Only if that layer of frost were continually replenished by the slow release of water vapour released from ice in the asteroid’s interior, the researchers reasoned.

In other words, 24 Themis some 200 kilometres (125 miles) in diameter almost certainly contains far more water locked in its minerals than anyone suspected.

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This article has many flaws. At the very outset, the headline itself is misleading. Unfortunately the piece has fallen to the common temptation of sensationalising the news with an unholy bargain of the truth. Unlike what the headline implies, the asteroid Themis 24 is very much a solid mass covered with a thin layer of ice and not wholly made out of ice. If you want a sensational title, isn’t it good enough to just say “Asteroids likely source of water on Earth”?

Secondly, the article has been sadly stripped of so many important data points that it fails to make the point. For example, when asking the question “How could frozen water persist over billions of years on an asteroid hot enough to vapourise surface ice?” the writer gives no background to the reader about why is it hot enough to vaporise the surface ice. If the piece of rock is in between Mars and Jupiter then a common man would assume that the surface temperature compared to the Earth (which is much closer to the sun) would be lower. Thus, if Earth can have surface ice, then why can’t an asteroid? Although this logic is flawed in itself, it raises many more questions in a reader’s mind such as, is it because the asteroid has no atmosphere? or is it because it travels at a greater speed than earth? and so on. Also, the mystery question is wrongly posed as it should be ‘millions’ (what authors claim by their modelling) instead of ‘billions‘.

Thirdly, there is no mention of the timeline in any of the Nature articles and points to the classic error of ‘making up information’ for the sake of it. I suppose that the writer has come to a conclusion (if at all he has given this article any thought) that first sign of life was seen 3.5 billion years ago thus obviously, water would have come to Earth sometime before that. Thus, the use of “nearly four billion years ago.”

Fourthly, “Only if that layer of frost were continually replenished by the slow release of water vapour released from ice in the asteroid’s interior, the researchers reasoned.” This sentence will only confuse the readers ever more. Why does the ice in the interior of the asteroid sublime only to deposit back as frost on the surface? The more probable reason, as mentioned by the researchers, is ‘impact gardening’ which is the phenomenon of small bodies hitting the surface of the asteroid and churning up the subsurface ice. The impact might also be able to trigger the sublimation of subsurface ice, the authors believe. There is no mention of that in this article!

Finally, “24 Themis — some 200 kilometres (125 miles) in diameter — almost certainly contains far more water locked in its minerals than anyone suspected” is absolutely wrong. Humberto et. al clearly mention that “Although many asteroids show absorptions in this region, they are well matched by hydrated minerals. The spectral features of 24 Themis are significantly different from those in other asteroids and we show that it is accurately matched by small ice particles.” The point the authors make is exactly opposite. There isn’t hydrated minerals or ‘high concentration hydrated minerals’ that the authors observe but water in it’s free form as small ice particles.

As science writers we have the responsibility to communicate science correctly and such obvious mistakes will only create more doubts and lead the readers astray.

ResearchBlogging.org Rivkin, A., & Emery, J. (2010) Detection of ice and organics on an asteroidal surface. Nature, 464(7293), 1322-1323. DOI: 10.1038/nature09028 & Campins, H., Hargrove, K., Pinilla-Alonso, N., Howell, E., Kelley, M., Licandro, J., Mothé-Diniz, T., Fernández, Y., & Ziffer, J. (2010) Water ice and organics on the surface of the asteroid 24 Themis. Nature, 464(7293), 1320-1321. DOI: 10.1038/nature09029