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.

Can academic pursuits and money not go hand-in-hand?

This month’s C & EN editorial by Allen J. Bard argues that ‘the culture of academic research has shifted over the past 50 years from research evaluation based on teaching, creativity and productivity to one based simply on the amount of money raised.’

Allen goes on to note that ‘I’ve been to party to tenure discussions that have centred on “scoring two major grants” rather than on the quality of work.’ What is more worrying is that, ‘the fact is that the final decision to fund really comes from the project officers who have often become remote from the frontiers of research and often fall prey to the fad of the mouth’.

He also points out that this has led the universities to focus on demonstrating the ‘economical value’ of the research and their ‘critical mission’ becomes getting more intellectual property (IP) or start-up companies. He concludes by saying, ‘If working closely with students and doing long-term fundamental research is not the goal and money is the important thing, there are more lucrative professions than academic ones for them to pursue.’

If it is true that academics spend 70% of their time writing research proposals then I do agree that Allen has raised some very valid points. But I can’t seem to agree with him that academics should be a pursuit devoid of money.

I think if it’s possible to be an academic who is good at commercialising ideas then one should be. All those monetary benefits of IP that come along with it are a good thing for a university, especially in the economic climate that we are in, where we face major cuts to research spending and increased tuition fees.

Also blaming this capitalistic view of a university for not being able to attract the right talent isn’t right. Academics tend to believe that all the people who do research do it because of the love of the subject and nothing else. Well, they might, but more often than not they may have other reasons. In that respect, the fact that an academic pursuit can lead to a good commercial idea, may actually lure more people than just the subject nerds.

And yet, I cannot agree more that it shouldn’t become the ‘critical mission’ of a university. It may have happened that universities started small, trying to align with the capitalistic nature of the market, by asking academics to ‘think about’ commercialising ideas and over the years reached the point, that they have now, where it has become their ‘main aim’.

Sleep more to lose weight? Read this before

Before this piece of research gets out of hand due to shoddy science journalism, it does not conclude that people should sleep longer to lose weight. The paper is titled “Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity”, which means that if you are person dieting to lose fat then sleeping less will undermine your efforts.

The study compares a group of 10 who were dieting, 6 persons slept for 8.5 hours every night for two weeks and similarly, 4 persons slept for 5.5 hours every night for two weeks. And this was repeated on the same subjects after three months. It was seen that the persons who slept less lost less body-fat more fat-free body mass (such as proteins). In the subjects who lost more fat-free body mass they observed increased hunger, which under normal circumstances, will undermine the efforts of a person dieting.
The conclusion is very clear

Patients attempting to lose weight should consider getting adequate amounts of sleep in addition to limiting calorie intake to ensure that they retain lean muscle mass and lose fat. (Reference: Nedeltcheva AV, Kilkus JM, Imperial J, Schoeller DA, & Penev PD (2010). Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity. Annals of internal medicine, 153(7), 435-41 PMID: 20921542)

The conclusion is NOT what The Seattle Times or Los Angeles Times says:

Moral of the study? Put aside the work, or that late-night TV show, and get some shut-eye. Compared to exercise and diet, it’s the easiest part of healthy weight loss.

Also remember the limitations of the study

All were nonsmokers aged 35 to 49 years, and none were morbidly obese. Patients were followed for only 2 periods of 2 weeks each, much less than the average amount of time people would usually spend on a calorie-restriction program.