A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

Good News For Hypercholesterolemic Hamsters

Posted by apgaylard on May 18, 2008

Now I can eat all the burgers I want...On Friday BBC News On-line reported, under the headline “Juice ‘prevents clogged arteries’ ” that, “Juices made from apples or purple grapes – and the fruit themselves – protect against developing clogged arteries, a study suggests.” Is this good news? Well, yes if you are a hypercholesterolemic hamster.  Unfortunately, for those of us who aren’t, this piece provides no way to tell. 

The article is based on a paper published in the April 2008 issue of Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, entitled “Phenolics from purple grape, apple, purple grape juice and apple juice prevent early atherosclerosis induced by an atherogenic diet in hamsters.”

Now, this piece seems to fall between two stools: not meeting the needs of either the expert or lay reader.  By adopting the typical BBC style of not providing the original reference, or much in the way of technical detail, it is not likely to appeal to a knowledgeable audience. 

Perhaps more tellingly, there is no way for someone without a good technical background in this area to extract any meaningful information.   To help me understand the applicability of this work to my species, I’d really like to have been told how relevant the hamster model is to humans in this case.  It would be nice to know whether the (presumably) unnatural atherogenic diet the hamsters endured had any implications for the interpretation of this work.

Without this sort of background information the piece fails to inform.  It certainly doesn’t justify the content of either the title or first paragraph.  Without explaining how good a model the hamster is, the ‘human sizing’ of apple or grape quantities is not very helpful.

The article also, unhelpfully, digressed into propagating the anti-oxidant myth, “A British nutritionist said: “High levels of anti-oxidants are recognised as being good for you.” ”  Nutritionists (always a word to set alarm bells ringing) may recognise this, but the evidence is just not there.

 So, this looks like good news for over-indulgent hamsters.  I’d like to know whether this is at all relevant to me: should I be drinking four glasses of purple grape juice a day?

This piece sheds no light on the issue it purports to address.  It doesn’t meet the needs of either the expert or lay audiences.  It just fills up space and helps peddle the anti-oxidant myth.  Now, the BBC is not by any means alone in providing questionable coverage of this story, though it was quite late to the party; but it’s sad to see the BBC do this badly.


12 Responses to “Good News For Hypercholesterolemic Hamsters”

  1. dvnutrix said

    ” It doesn’t meet the needs of either the expert or lay audiences.”

    My pet peeve about much of the coverage. Plus, if patients take in print-outs or similar clippings to GPs, the hapless GP ends up having to explain animal models, p values, in vitro v. in vivo tests, etc. etc.

    The present model of science and health reporting does little except sow uncertainty and distrust. Science blogs are a partial solution but they don’t have the funding to do the really cool stuff and we shouldn’t lose science from MSM just because advertisers have no revenue from it (according to Nick Davies’ Flat Earth).

  2. jdc325 said

    “By adopting the typical BBC style of not providing the original reference, or much in the way of technical detail…”

    That’s actually one of my pet hates. In March, I emailed the Health Editor to have a bit of a moan about the lack of references in science & health stories. I got this response back: “As the is site intended for lay readers, it is our editorial policy not to give specific references to pieces in journals, as is the practice in national newspapers. In both instances the name of the journal and research institution is featured prominently in the story. In addition, we provide web links to the relevant journals.” Presumably the BBC thinks lay readers are unable to understand references to papers. Which makes me wonder why they bother to link to the relevant journals at all.

    Apparently, using specific references “has been a subject of some discussion here in the past, and doubtless needs to be again”. Let’s hope it is.

  3. apgaylard said

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. This article struck me as a typical genre piece; I’m sure there are plenty more where that came from. I’ve sent in a complaint; I suspect I know what the response is likely to be (we didn’t mislead, we mentioned hamsters, people can’t understand the detail..). I guess I’d just like them to think about what use a piece like this is (aside from keeping journalists in work and filling up a website).

  4. antioxexpress said

    Obviously this hamster needs more phytonutrient-dense antioxidants in his/her diet. That’s the cure! My favorites are the deeply colored fruits and vegetables including raspberries, blueberries, strawberris, and blackberries, plus broccoli and carrots. And just for insurance because my diet is kind of on the eat-on-the-quick side, I take my antioxidant supplements daily so I, too, can have the fine outcome of Mr. Hamster.

    [ed. link removed – overtly commercial content]

  5. jdc325 said

    Hi Mac.

    I was reading your comment and, having followed the links you provided, I would be interested to know what you thought of the Bjelakovic meta analysis. It would be nice to get the viewpoint of a person who recommends antioxidants, claims to take them daily herself and has two websites dedicated to promoting antioxidants. I feel sure that someone who has quoted as many scientists and scientific studies on their website as you have will be au fait with important research such as this.

    I’d also be interested if you could explain why your antioxidant supplement is so expensive ($41.99 a month for what appears to be marketed as a substitute for or a supplement to good old fruit & veg just seems a bit pricey to me).

  6. antioxexpress said

    Thanks, jdc…, for suggesting I review the Bjelakovic meta analysis in regards to my comments that I take antioxidant supplements myself, etc. I DO take antioxidant supplements because, with my Westernized and often-hurried eating habits, I don’t believe I’m getting the full nutrients from the foods I eat. Probably because so much that is convenient is not “whole” nor organic. So I’m trying to be conscientious in another manner by taking certified and organic supplements.

    I found the title interesting that described the Bjelakovic meta analysis review article: “Mortality in randomized trials of antioxidant supplements for primary and secondary prevention: systematic review and meta-analysis.” So I, of course, read with interest to see if, in fact, antioxidants had even more wonderful attributes that I hadn’t even thought of or read before. Could they actually increase one’s mortality and, if so, by how much?

    Much to my dismay here is the conclusion to the analysis: “…the DATA EXTRACTION: We included 68 randomized trials with 232 606 participants (385 publications). DATA SYNTHESIS: When all low-and high-bias risk trials of antioxidant supplements were pooled together there was no significant effect on mortality (RR, 1.02; 95% CI, 0.98-1.06).”

    Ah hah!! Just as I thought! While my body, my cells, my organs, and possibly my disposition may all be healthier and happier with the regular inclusion of antioxidants in my diet – whether in their original whole plant source forms, or organic and dried and powdered for easy ingestion – I still expect to die at some point. So, from my point of view, it’s not about my mortality as much as it’s about my vitality! And I plan to live life to its’ fullest so, with the help of antioxidants and exercise and lots of laughter (gotta love those endorphins!), I know I will! Will you join me, too?

    [ed. link removed – overtly commercial content]

  7. jdc325 said

    “When all low-and high-bias risk trials of antioxidant supplements were pooled together there was no significant effect on mortality”
    Hey look, I can selectively quote too: “beta-carotene singly or combined significantly increased mortality in 12 trials; vitamin A singly or combined significantly increased mortality in 5 trials; vitamin E given singly or combined significantly increased mortality in 26 trials”.

    “I DO take antioxidant supplements because, with my Westernized and often-hurried eating habits, I don’t believe I’m getting the full nutrients from the foods I eat.”
    I have no idea whether you are achieving your RDA of nutrients or not. The point is that antioxidant pills are useless – they have been tested for various endpoints of various diseases and for various diseases (heart disease, cancer…) and have been found to either do nothing or cause harm (studies have been stopped due to concerns about increased rates of lung cancer in smokers taking antioxidant pills). It doesn’t matter what you believe about antioxidants – if they fail to improve measurable parameters of health then how do you know your beliefs are in any way true? The evidence supports eating a varied, balanced diet rich in vegetables and fruit. It does not support antioxidant pills and/or powders.

    Fruit & veg = healthy. The rest is just gossip.

  8. jdc325 said

    Gah – html again!
    “(heart disease, cancer… )” was meant to be ellipsis followed by parenthesis rather than a smiley. Sorry.

  9. antioxexpress said

    I understand your points. I also read your statement about “concerns about increased rates of lung cancer in smokers taking antioxidant pills…” What is the correlation in non-smokers taking antioxidant supplements (not necessarily in pill form) on incidence and/or exacerbation of lung cancer?

    Yes natural foods, i.e., fruits and veggies, usually = healthy. I happen to believe that supplementing with certified and/or organic fruits and veggies that have been dried and powdered and blended so I can carry them conveniently with me no matter where I go, and are available to me no matter when or under what circumstances, and this works into my already over-scheduled life. I DO eat the fresh varieties as a first choice….but this is not always an option. I am taking real food, real antioxidants, in their dried and powdered form.

    [edit. overtly commercial link removed]

  10. jdc325 said

    I had some difficulty finding much of anything about antioxidant supplements preventing lung cancer in non-smokers. There are some papers that discuss the effects of antioxidants on cancer incidence that are discussed below. I note that the articles tend to discuss antioxidants without specifying whether they are from food, supplements or both. The first article discusses observational studies with inconsistent results as well as pointing out that the results of supplement trials do not support a reductionist approach. Diet studies and serum studies are discussed in the second paper and these are said by the authors to suggest benefit for antioxidants. The final paper I quote from states concern over abundant antioxidants suppressing protective functions as well as pointing to possible benefits of exogenous antioxidants.

    “Across a variety of cancers, the observational studies have inconsistent results with respect to the relationship shown of specific dietary intake or serum levels of antioxidants and risk of certain cancers. The results of the micronutrient supplement trials clearly do not support a reductionist approach to promoting regression of precancerous lesions or prevention of new cancer, except in a few cancers and specific populations. The ability of the antioxidant micronutrients to influence the risk for tissue injury and for cancer, mediated by their antioxidant activities, remains hypothetical.”
    Curr Oncol Rep. 2001 Jul;3(4):306-13; PMID: 11389814

    The data concerning carotenoids and lung cancer risk were most consistent (protection found in 4 of 8 diet studies and 5 of 6 serum studies), with strong associations that tended to follow a dose-response pattern. For lung cancer, there was weaker evidence of protection from vitamin C (2 of 6 diet studies) and vitamin E (3 of 4 serum studies).
    J Am Coll Nutr. 1995 Oct;14(5):419-27; PMID: 8522720

    Intake of exogenous antioxidants (vitamins E, C, beta-carotene and others) could protect against cancer and other degenerative diseases in people with innate or acquired high levels of ROS. However, abundant antioxidants might suppress these protective functions, particularly in people with a low innate baseline level of ROS.

    According to the full text of the JACN article, “antioxidants scavenge excessive ROS, but do not remove numerous chemical carcinogens, which appear in lungs as a result of cigarette smoking. This is seemingly why antioxidants can prevent lung cancer in non-smokers [37]”. Reference 37 is to Byers T, Perry G: Dietary carotenes, vitamin C and vitamin E as
    protective antioxidants in human cancers. Ann Rev Nutr 12:139–
    159, 1992.
    – unfortunately it is behind a paywall, but the JACN paper does seem to suggest that antioxidants help prevent lung cancer in non-smokers. Note that the paper suggesting antioxidants can be of benefit in this way also suggests that extra antioxidants may not be of benefit to all. [“abundant antioxidants might suppress these protective functions”]

    It just doesn’t seem to be as simple as ‘antioxidants = good’. We don’t really know if antioxidants protect against cancer because results have been inconsistent and there are concerns over high levels of antioxidant intake as well as low levels.

    With regards the convenience and ‘realness’ of dried, powdered and blended fruit – I tend to find bananas and apples to be sufficiently real and convenient for my needs.

  11. antioxexpress said


  12. apgaylard said

    Yes, very good point. By the way why do you think that a hamster is a good model for people? This is one of the most puzzling aspects for me. I’d appreciate any data that you may have.

    Your diet seems OK, not dissimilar to mine; though I get the sense that I cook from scratch and take more time out to enjoy than you do (and the last time I checked I was very much a ‘Westerner’ – by the way fast-food is not the exclusive preserve of the West – ever visited a roadside noodle bar in Japan?).

    I just like fruit and veggies (plus meat of course), I don’t expect them to confer any miraculous benefits.

    My impression of the evidence is that you should eat your veggies (and fruit) but not expect that extracted anti-oxidants will actually do you any good (see here also).

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