Ethically spending a million pounds on useful research

Does offering financial incentives encourage mothers of newborns to breastfeed? While this may seem incredulous, a study actually was implemented in parts of England to see if this would be the case.

More than 10,000 mothers across regions such as South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire took part in the trial, where mothers were given a hundred and twenty pounds if they breastfed their babies, and a further eighty pounds if they continued up to the point the babies were six months old. That is to say mothers received two hundred pounds if their babies were breastfed up to the age of six months.

But why was this implemented in the first place? One of the reasons the study was done was to see if financial incentives would help raise the rate of breastfeeding in the UK. In some parts of the UK, only one in eight babies are breastfed past eight weeks. The early suspension of breastfeeding causes later problems in life for babies, and this was a study to see if it would be possible to save a reported seventeen million pounds in annual hospital admissions or GP visits.

How were these women chosen? They were picked from areas which were reportedly low-income ones. There was a suggestion that in low-income areas, mothers feel obliged to return to work quickly and breastfeeding is inconvenient and a reason why mothers stop it.

The financial incentive did result in a rise of six percentage points, from 32% to 38%. This meant that over six hundred more mothers in the ten thousand breastfed their babies for up to six months instead of the hypothetical eight week line.

Should we get excited about these results? Caution is to be exercised.

As a few leading academics noted, there was no way to monitor a reported increase. The mother’s word was taken at face value but there was no way to monitor that a prolonged breastfeeding period actually took place. It would not be inaccurate to say that of these six hundred mothers, some merely reported they had breastfed for longer but without actually doing it. If you live in an income-deprived area, and were offered two hundred pounds of shopping at a time when you needed it, without having to do much apart from saying “Yes, I breastfed”, wouldn’t you take the easy money?

It was mentioned that if the results did have a high percentage of trustworthiness to them, in other words, if mothers breastfed as they said they had done, it would help normalise breastfeeding in regions where it might cause embarrassment to the mother. Why might breastfeeding cause embarrassment? For example, in some social situations it might be slightly awkward to reveal normally covered parts of the body in public.

How much did the scheme cost? If we assume that 38% of 10000 mothers breastfed and claimed these financial vouchers, that’s around 4000 mothers each claiming two hundred pounds, at a cost of eight hundred thousand pounds.

Wow. Eight hundred thousand pounds of free shopping for which an outcome cannot be undisputably proven. Where does all the money come from?

The Medical Research Council was funded to the tune of up to seven hundred and fifty-five million pounds in 2016/17, or which nearly half was provided as grants to researchers. But while all that may sound as a lot of money, surely there should be more accountability in how the money is used. Using up nearly a million pounds of that money for a trial whose results cannot be justified is not a good use of money.

But perhaps the babies’ height, weight and other factors pertaining to breastfeeding could have been taken? For example, if we know that breastfeeding has benefits in certain areas, such as in growth charts, perhaps the babies that were breastfed in that study could have been measured against babies who had not been breastfed to see if there had been any positive gain, and something that could correlate to breastfeeding over the six month period?

Imagine if this had been a study about literacy. Imagine that mothers who read two stories to their child up to the age of four years would receive two hundred pounds. Surely, at the end of the period, the research scientists would not merely be going to the mothers and saying “Did you read to your child? Yes? Here’s two hundred pounds.” They would try to assess the child, perhaps by means of a literacy test of some form, to see if any reading had actually taken place.

Otherwise it is just money down the drain for results which cannot be proven and cannot be relied on. In that case, what is the purpose of spending money on hearsay?

Did giving eight hundred thousand pounds encourage mothers in income-deprived areas to breastfeed for longer periods? Who knows? The only thing we can be sure of is that eight hundred thousand pounds made them say they did it.

Health umbrella reviews mask the real issues

You have to wonder why the breakfast tea doesn’t get the same level of attention. Or perhaps whether in France, the humble croissant is elevated to the same status. Or maybe the banana could soon be the star of another media show. But unfortunately it is coffee that headlines tomorrow’s fish and chips papers.

“Drinking three or four cups of coffee a day could have benefits for your health”. As we have seen previously, this kind of headline bears the hallmarks of a media health report:

1) repackaging of common information requiring little or no specialist examination;

2) use of a modal auxiliary verb (could) to conveniently justify or disclaim an

attention-grabbing headline – which, by the way, is point number three.

The health reports in the media also incorporate:

4) a statistically small group of trial participants, whose results are then blown up in proportion as if to be representative of the 7 billion people on the planet.

5) Assumptions. A media report about health could simply include assumptions.

Why dwell on coffee? For starters, it is a commonly consumed drink and so any meaningful research would potentially have bearings on millions of people. It is common media practice to focus on common food and activities because of the relevance to daily life.

But if you examine this carefully, why not tea? Why not write about tea? While conspiracy theories may be slightly far fetched, it is possible that – unless it is a speciality tea – coffees cost more, and any potential health benefits would lead people to spend more, hence generating more for the economy in the forms of tax. Perhaps this is why media writers don’t waste too much ink on researching the potential life-saving benefits of bananas, even though they are widely consumed. The research isn’t going to drive people to buy bananas in bulk, and even so, the extra revenue generated from a low priced item isn’t going to raise much extra tax.

Are there any notable similarities or differences in style across different countries? One wonders whether Parisian newspapers, on a regular basis, churn out headlines such as:

“Eating two or more croissants a day could reduce your chances of heart disease.”

“Pan aux raisins linked with dementia”.

The research done was an umbrella review to potentially examine whether further research should be undertaken into researching the effects of coffee and its role in preventing liver cancer. An umbrella review meant that no actual research was undertaken, but that existing research was examined and analysed to glean insights.

The problem with umbrella reviews is that they are very generalised, no actual research is done, and they are only brief analyses of existing research. This means that first of all, an umbrella review could arrive at a particular conclusion, but in no way should that be taken as the final conclusion.

In fact, the findings of an umbrella review are only the preliminary to more detailed investigation. If an umbrella review suggested that drinking coffee could prevent cancer, then what it is saying is more research needs to be undertaken, and the media needs to be ethically responsible by not reporting “Coffee prevents Cancer”, because there are people that look at newspapers and television as the source of their information and assume just because it has been released in the public domain, it is truth. Who could conceive that newspapers spend time and resources to publish trivial information and that television is pure rubbish?

The second problem with umbrella reviews is that the outcomes are only as good as the original sources. If someone gave you a set of grainy photos, then asked you to make a collage with them, then your collage is going to be as good as the grainy photos will allow. If the original sources were not thorough or exact in their investigation, are any subsequent findings based on these merely just a waste of time?

The third issue with umbrella reviews is that under closer scrutiny, the overall picture is distorted by over focussing on small statistical variances, or sometimes minute errors are magnified and lead one down the wrong path.

If you took a picture on your phone and then blew it up to the size of a mural covering the side of your house, the picture becomes very dotty. You might see big patchy squares. But if you started looking for that big patchy square from the image in your phone… one has to wonder what the purpose of that is.

The fourth is that because umbrella reviews are a prelude to a more thorough investigation, their end results are slightly skewed from the outset. If an umbrella review is bound to provide a few avenues for later time-consuming research then it is fundamentally biased into having to provide one in the first place. Why, in that case, have such reviews in the first place? Some may point out that the flaw in the system is that umbrella reviews are relied on by those in academia and research to warrant the continued longevity of their positions. In other words, if researchers had nothing to research, they might be out of a job, so they best find something to stick their noses in.

Have you ever read the London newspaper Metro and come across some research news such as:

“Going to bed angry can wreck your sleep” (25 Sept 2017)

It is the sort of headline that makes you think “Why bother doing the research in the first place?”

It is likely that you have read a media report of an umbrella review.

What were the findings of the original coffee review?

Drinking coffee was consistently linked with a lower risk of death from all causes and from heart disease. The largest reduction in relative risk of premature death was seen in people consuming three cups a day, compared with non-coffee drinkers.

Now, when an umbrella review mentions drinking coffee is linked with a lower risk of death, it is important to be clear about what it specifically means. And what it is stating is that those who had a lower risk of death all happened to drink coffee. It might have nothing to do with the coffee itself. It might have been that they took a break to slow down a fast-paced lifestyle, and the taking of a break gave them a lower risk of death. By that logic of association, tea could also be linked with a lower risk of death.

Coffee was also associated with a lower risk of several cancers, including prostate, endometrial, skin and liver cancer, as well as type-2 diabetes, gallstones and gout, the researchers said. The greatest benefit was seen for liver conditions such as cirrhosis of the liver.

Again, to be clear, the above link means that those who were at lower risk of those cancers happened to drink coffee. But it is not necessarily stating the coffee had anything to do with it.

And coffee is such a commonly consumed drink, that it is easy to use it to draw links to anything.

If people who died from car accidents happened to drink coffee, an umbrella review might state that drinking coffee is linked with higher incidences of car accidents.

The findings can be summarised by a health analyst:

“Does coffee prevent chronic disease and reduce mortality? We simply do not know. Should doctors recommend drinking coffee to prevent disease? Should people start drinking coffee for health reasons? The answer to both questions is ‘no’.”

We should perhaps add a further third question: Did the umbrella review produce any actionable findings, and should it have been undertaken in the first place?

Probably not.

Is there any truth about the benefits of Classical music?

Is there any truth to the commonly accepted notion that listening to classical music improves mental capacity? Somehow it has been accepted in modern society that classical musicians have larger frontal cortices, better mental reasoning powers and perhaps intelligence quotients. Over the last two decades or so this idea has fuelled a rise in the number of pregnant mothers listening to classical music – whether or not they like it – and parents enrolling their children into music classes. The music of Mozart, in particular, has enjoyed a resurgence as its classical form is deemed to be more logical and organised, compared to music of other periods, assisting in triggering patterns of organisation in the brain amongst its listeners.

How did this idea about Classical music come about? In the 1990s scientists conducted a series of experiments where one group of students were played one of Mozart’s piano sonatas before a spatial reasoning test, while another group sat in silence. The group that was played the music beforehand performed better on that task than the control group. The effect on the control group was temporary and only lasted fifteen minutes, meaning that after the fifteen minute mark the disparities between the results were minimal and statistically the same. The results of the group found also that while music primed the individual particularly for mathematical tasks, after an hour of listening to Classical music, the effect on the brain was lost.

That piece of research was pounced on by the media and other individuals and seemingly perpetuated to promote the listening of Classical music. One governor of the state of Georgia even decreed that newborn babies be given a copy of a CD of Mozart’s works upon leaving the hospital. The Mozart Effect, to give it its common name, was written about in newspapers and magazines, and this began the spur of Mozart-related sales of music as well as the trend of mothers playing such music to their children in and out of the womb.

The most important question we need to ask is whether there is any truth in such research, and whether it can be corroborated.

We know that some forms of music has a soothing, calming effect on individuals. Playing the music to the students may have calmed that so they were not nervous, allowing them to perform better on the task. However, relaxation need not take them the form of Classical music. Any activity that promotes calm before a task – reading a light magazine, playing computer games, talking with a friend – can also hence be said to have the same effect as the classical music that was played.

What if the students in the group had read a joke book or comic beforehand, been less worried about the test and scored better? It might have prompted a deluge of articles claiming “Reading Archie (or The Beano – insert your own title here) improves your IQ”.

Or if the students had been offered a protein drink beforehand, it would not be inconceivable that someone would latch to that piece of research and declare that “Protein Drinks not just good for your body, but for your brain too”.

Mozart’s music has been said to embody the elements of classical music as we know it. Organised formal structures, chords and harmonies through related keys, use of contrasting tunes, contrasts in volume all feature in his music. But the music of other composers have such features too. Imagine if the composer Josef Haydn had been the lucky beneficiary of the experiment and his music had been played instead. The sales of his music catalogue would have hit the roof!

Subsequent scientists all found that listening to music of any form caused improvements, and the genre of music – whether rock or Classical – was irrelevant. But studies today still quote Mozart.

Is it ethical that the media promotes unsubstantiated research by reporting without closer scrutiny? As we have seen in previous blogs posts, the media reports on things without necessarily scrutinising the evidence, and entrusts so-called experts to corroborate the evidence, while it fills column inches and air time with modal auxiliary verbs? Huh? In simple terms, it means that if there is a sniff of a link between A and B, the media reports that “A could cause B”. Never mind whether it does or not, there is always the disclaimer of the word “could”.

In this instance, students performed better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to Mozart; hence the headline “Mozart could improve mental powers”. Diluted over several recounts, you could get “According to XXX newspaper, Mozart improves brain power” before arriving at “Mozart improves brain power”. Unfortunately, this is when the headline is then pounced on by anyone who would stand to profit from espousing this theme.

Who would profit from this? The Classical music world – performers, writers, musicians – can use this “research” to entice people into taking up lessons and buying CDs and magazines. If you read any music teacher’s website you may find them espousing the benefits of learning music; it is rare if you find one that advises it is a lot of effort.

The media will profit from such “research” because it means there is an untapped well of news to report and bleed dry in the quest for filling column inches and air time. News exclusives will be brought out, and so-called experts will also profit for appearing on the news and programmes, either monetarily or in the form of public exposure.

One must question the ethics of incorrect reporting. Unfortunately unsubstantiated research leads to more diluted misreporting, which can then form the basis of new research – research that uses these claims as the groundwork for investigation.

It is scary to think that all the medical research that has been done into effect of music and health could be biased because of the so-called effect of classical music. Could musical activities such as learning the piano help reduce Parkinson’s disease? Could listening to the music of Beethoven reduce the incidence of higher cases of Alzheimer’s disease? Could it all be wrong – have we all been sent down the wrong tunnel by an avalance of hype reporting?

It may be fair to say the human impulse is to buy first and consider later, because we are prone to regret. If we have missed an opportunity to improve the lives and abilities of our children, then we will be kicking ourselves silly forever with guilt.

So if you are still not convinced either way about whether classical music – either in the listening or the practice – really does have any effect, you could at least mitigate your guilt by exposing your child to piano music, for example that has predictable patterns in the left hand. Sometimes, listening to structurally-organised music such as from the Baroque may be useful, but it is also good to listen to Romantic music because the greater range of expression arguably develops a child that has more emotionally subtlety and intelligence.

You may find that ultimately, any truth in the research about Classical music and its mental benefits is not due to the blind passive listening, sitting there while the music goes on around your children. It is in the child’s inner drive to mentally organise the sounds that are heard, the trying and attempts to organise background sounds that really triggers the mental activity in the brain. It is more the practised ability in the inner mind to organise musical sounds that causes better performance in related mental tasks.

Night time eating? Heart disease coming

That late night snack may be comforting and the perfect end to a day. However, if research is proven to be right, it could be the cumulative cause of heart disease.

Scientists have always known that night shift workers are at greater health risks than workers who work regular patterns. Which is why if you divided the pay shift workers receive by the hours worked, you would find that they have a higher hourly rate compared to those who do the same job during normal hours. That extra pay is to compensate for what is commonly perceived as the extra demand of working during the night, at a time your body is looking to shut down for a rest. The external pressures of going against your body, over a prolonged period, can exert a toll on the body.

Scientists in Mexico researching the links between diet and the human body tested their hypotheses on rats. The rats were fed food at a time when their bodies would normally be at rest, and the results showed that the fats from food remained longer as triglycerides in the body’s bloodstream for longer, because their bodies were at a resting state and not primed to break down food.

Bearing in mind that the research was done on rats, and while some results may have bearing on humans and some may not, what points could we take from these research results?

Having high levels of triglycerides in one’s body means that the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks are significantly increased. Hence, if you are eating late at night, you may be at greater risk. Although the research is only at its infancy, they could suggest that the body is better when it comes to the processing of fats, when it is at its most active state, as it comes at more of a natural time.

What can you do if you work shifts? You may not have much control over the food you eat, but you can take steps towards eating a healthier diet and make time for regular exercise so the overall risk of heart disease is lowered. And if you do not work shifts, but work during the day, a big meal late at night is also best avoided for you.

The financial considerations of investing in medicine and medical research

BBC News reports that a drug that would reduce the risk of HIV infection would result in cost savings of over £1bn over 80 years. Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or Prep, would reduce infection and hence lower the treatment costs for patients in the long term.

The catch? There is one. It’s the long term.

The cost of the treatment and prevention is such that its provision for the first twenty years – bundling together the cost of medical research and production of medicine – would result in a financial loss, and parity would only be achieved after a period of about thirty to forty years; this period is hard to define because it is dependent on what the drug would cost in the future.

Prep combines two anti-HIV drugs, emtricitabine and tenofovir. The medical trials behind it have concluded it has an effective rate of over one in five when it comes to protecting men who have unprotected sex with men from HIV infection. The exact figure is close to 86%.

Prep can be used either on a daily basis, or on what has been termed a sexual event basis – using it for two days before, during and after periods of unprotected sex.

The research model analysed the potential impact of Prep and found that it could reduce infection rates by over a quarter. The cost of the treatment itself, comparative to the cost of treating infection, would result in a saving over one billion pounds over eight years.

However, it does raise a few ethical questions. If the National Health Service is aiming to be a sustainable one – and one of the aims of sustainability is to empower citizens to take responsibility for their own health –  shouldn’t it be considering less about how it will balance the books, but spend more on education for prevention in the first place? The cost of producing Prep on the NHS would be £19.6 billion over 80 years; while the estimated savings from treatment would be £20.6 billion over the same period. Educating people not to have unprotected sex with those at the risk of HIV arguably would result in a higher saving over a lower time period. Perhaps the NHS should consider ways of reducing cost more significantly, rather than latching on to a cheaper prevention drug immediately. If consumer behaviour is not going to change, symptoms are still going to surface, and the provision of Prep on the NHS may only encourage less self-regulation and awareness.

Media’s Marvellous Medicine

When it comes to our health, the media wields enormous influence over what we think. They tell us what’s good, what’s bad, what’s right and wrong, what we should and shouldn’t eat. When you think about it, that’s quite some responsibility. But do you really think that a sense of philanthropic duty is the driving force behind most of the health ‘news’ stories that you read? Who are we kidding? It’s all about sales, of course, and all too often that means the science plays second fiddle. Who wants boring old science getting in the way of a sensation-making headline?

When it comes to research – especially the parts we’re interested in, namely food, diet and nutrients – there’s a snag. The thing is, these matters are rarely, if ever, clear-cut. Let’s say there are findings from some new research that suggest a component of our diet is good for our health. Now academics and scientists are generally a pretty cautious bunch – they respect the limitations of their work and don’t stretch their conclusions beyond their actual findings. Not that you’ll think this when you hear about it in the media. News headlines are in your face and hard hitting. Fluffy uncertainties just won’t cut it. An attention-grabbing headline is mandatory; relevance to the research is optional. Throw in a few random quotes from experts – as the author Peter McWilliams stated, the problem with ‘experts’ is you can always find one ‘who will say something hopelessly hopeless about anything’ – and boom! You’ve got the formula for some seriously media-friendly scientific sex appeal, or as we prefer to call it, ‘textual garbage’. The reality is that a lot of the very good research into diet and health ends up lost in translation. Somewhere between its publication in a respected scientific journal and the moment it enters our brains via the media, the message gets a tweak here, a twist there and a dash of sensationalism thrown in for good measure, which leaves us floundering in a sea of half-truths and misinformation. Most of it should come with the warning: ‘does nothing like it says in the print’. Don’t get us wrong: we’re not just talking about newspapers and magazines here, the problem runs much deeper. Even the so-called nutrition ‘experts’, the health gurus who sell books by the millions, are implicated. We’re saturated in health misinformation.

Quite frankly, many of us are sick of this contagion of nutritional nonsense. So, before launching headlong into the rest of the book, take a step back and see how research is actually conducted, what it all means and what to watch out for when the media deliver their less-than-perfect messages. Get your head around these and you’ll probably be able to make more sense of nutritional research than most of our cherished health ‘gurus’.

Rule #1: Humans are different from cells in a test tube
At the very basic level, researchers use in-vitro testing, in which they isolate cells or tissues of interest and study them outside a living organism in a kind of ‘chemical soup’. This allows substances of interest (for example, a vitamin or a component of food) to be added to the soup to see what happens. So they might, for example, add vitamin C to some cancer cells and observe its effect. We’re stating the obvious now when we say that what happens here is NOT the same as what happens inside human beings. First, the substance is added directly to the cells, so they are often exposed to concentrations far higher than would normally be seen in the body. Second, humans are highly complex organisms, with intricately interwoven systems of almost infinite processes and reactions. What goes on within a few cells in a test tube or Petri dish is a far cry from what would happen in the body. This type of research is an important part of science, but scientists know its place in the pecking order – as an indispensable starting point of scientific research. It can give us valuable clues about how stuff works deep inside us, what we might call the mechanisms, before going on to be more rigorously tested in animals, and ultimately, humans. But that’s all it is, a starting point.

Rule #2: Humans are different from animals
The next logical step usually involves animal testing. Studying the effects of a dietary component in a living organism, not just a bunch of cells, is a big step closer to what might happen in humans. Mice are often used, due to convenience, consistency, a short lifespan, fast reproduction rates and a closely shared genome and biology to humans. In fact, some pretty amazing stuff has been shown in mice. We can manipulate a hormone and extend life by as much as 30%1. We can increase muscle mass by 60% in two weeks. And we have shown that certain mice can even regrow damaged tissues and organs.

So, can we achieve all of that in humans? The answer is a big ‘no’ (unless you happen to believe the X-Men are real). Animal testing might be a move up from test tubes in the credibility ratings, but it’s still a long stretch from what happens in humans. You’d be pretty foolish to make a lot of wild claims based on animal studies alone.

To prove that, all we need to do is take a look at pharmaceutical drugs. Vast sums of money (we’re talking hundreds of millions) are spent trying to get a single drug to market. But the success rate is low. Of all the drugs that pass in-vitro and animal testing to make it into human testing, only 11% will prove to be safe and effective enough to hit the shelves5. For cancer drugs the rate of success is only 5%5. In 2003, the President of Research and Development at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, John La Mattina, stated that ‘only one in 25 early candidates survives to become a prescribed medicine’. You don’t need to be a betting person to see these are seriously slim odds.

Strip it down and we can say that this sort of pre-clinical testing never, ever, constitutes evidence that a substance is safe and effective. These are research tools to try and find the best candidates to improve our health, which can then be rigorously tested for efficacy in humans. Alas, the media and our nutrition gurus don’t appear to care too much for this. Taking research carried out in labs and extrapolating the results to humans sounds like a lot more fun. In fact, it’s the very stuff of many a hard-hitting newspaper headline and bestselling health book. To put all of this into context, let’s take just one example of a classic media misinterpretation, and you’ll see what we mean.

Rule #3: Treat headlines with scepticism
Haven’t you heard? The humble curry is right up there in the oncology arsenal – a culinary delight capable of curing the big ‘C’. At least that’s what the papers have been telling us. ‘The Spice Of Life! Curry Fights Cancer’ decreed the New York Daily News. ‘How curry can help keep cancer at bay’ and ‘Curry is a “cure for cancer”’ reported the Daily Mail and The Sun in the UK. Could we be witnessing the medical breakthrough of the decade? Best we take a closer look at the actual science behind the headlines.

The spice turmeric, which gives some Indian dishes a distinctive yellow colour, contains relatively large quantities of curcumin, which has purported benefit in Alzheimer’s disease, infections, liver disease, inflammatory conditions and cancer. Impressive stuff. But there’s a hitch when it comes to curcumin. It has what is known as ‘poor bioavailability’. What that means is, even if you take large doses of curcumin, only tiny amounts of it get into your body, and what does get in is got rid of quickly. From a curry, the amount absorbed is so miniscule that it is not even detectable in the body.

So what were those sensational headlines all about? If you had the time to track down the academic papers being referred to, you would see it was all early stage research. Two of the articles were actually referring to in-vitro studies (basically, tipping some curcumin onto cancer cells in a dish and seeing what effect it had).

Suffice to say, this is hardly the same as what happens when you eat a curry. The other article referred to an animal study, where mice with breast cancer were given a diet containing curcumin. Even allowing for the obvious differences between mice and humans, surely that was better evidence? The mice ate curcumin-containing food and absorbed enough for it to have a beneficial effect on their cancer. Sounds promising, until we see the mice had a diet that was 2% curcumin by weight. With the average person eating just over 2kg of food a day, 2% is a hefty 40g of curcumin. Then there’s the issue that the curcumin content of the average curry/turmeric powder used in curry is a mere 2%. Now, whoever’s out there conjuring up a curry containing 2kg of curry powder, please don’t invite us over for dinner anytime soon.

This isn’t a criticism of the science. Curcumin is a highly bio-active plant compound that could possibly be formulated into an effective medical treatment one day. This is exactly why these initial stages of research are being conducted. But take this basic stage science and start translating it into public health advice and you can easily come up with some far-fetched conclusions. Let us proffer our own equally absurd headline: ‘Curry is a Cause of Cancer’. Abiding by the same rules of reporting used by the media, we’ve taken the same type of in-vitro and animal-testing evidence and conjured up a completely different headline. We can do this because some studies of curcumin have found that it actually causes damage to our DNA, and in so doing could potentially induce cancer.

As well as this, concerns about diarrhoea, anaemia and interactions with drug-metabolizing enzymes have also been raised. You see how easy it is to pick the bits you want in order to make your headline? Unfortunately, the problem is much bigger than just curcumin. It could just as easily be resveratrol from red wine, omega-3 from flaxseeds, or any number of other components of foods you care to mention that make headline news.

It’s rare to pick up a newspaper or nutrition book without seeing some new ‘superfood’ or nutritional supplement being promoted on the basis of less than rigorous evidence. The net result of this shambles is that the real science gets sucked into the media vortex and spat out in a mishmash of dumbed-down soundbites, while the nutritional messages we really should be taking more seriously get lost in a kaleidoscope of pseudoscientific claptrap, peddled by a media with about as much authority to advise on health as the owner of the local pâtisserie.

Rule #4: Know the difference between association and causation
If nothing else, we hope we have shown that jumping to conclusions based on laboratory experiments is unscientific, and probably won’t benefit your long-term health. To acquire proof, we need to carry out research that involves actual humans, and this is where one of the greatest crimes against scientific research is committed in the name of a good story, or to sell a product.

A lot of nutritional research comes in the form of epidemiological studies. These involve looking at populations of people and observing how much disease they get and seeing if it can be linked to a risk factor (for example, smoking) or some protective factor (for example, eating fruit and veggies). And one of the most spectacular ways to manipulate the scientific literature is to blur the boundary between ‘association’ and ‘causation’. This might all sound very academic, but it’s actually pretty simple.

Confusing association with causation means you can easily arrive at the wrong conclusion. For example, a far higher percentage of visually impaired people have Labradors compared to the rest of the population, so you might jump to the conclusion that Labradors cause sight problems. Of course we know better, that if you are visually impaired then you will probably have a Labrador as a guide dog. To think otherwise is ridiculous.

But apply the same scenario to the complex human body and it is not always so transparent. Consequently, much of the debate about diet and nutrition is of the ‘chicken versus egg’ variety. Is a low or high amount of a nutrient a cause of a disease, a consequence of the disease, or simply irrelevant?

To try and limit this confusion, researchers often use what’s known as a cohort study. Say you’re interested in studying the effects of diet on cancer risk. You’d begin by taking a large population that are free of the disease at the outset and collect detailed data on their diet. You’d then follow this population over time, let’s say ten years, and see how many people were diagnosed with cancer during this period. You could then start to analyse the relationship between people’s diet and their risk of cancer, and ask a whole lot of interesting questions. Did people who ate a lot of fruit and veggies have less cancer? Did eating a lot of red meat increase cancer? What effect did drinking alcohol have on cancer risk? And so on.

The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), which we refer to often in this book, is an example of a powerfully designed cohort study, involving more than half a million people in ten countries. These studies are a gold mine of useful information because they help us piece together dietary factors that could influence our risk of disease.

But, however big and impressive these studies are, they’re still observational. As such they can only show us associations, they cannot prove causality. So if we’re not careful about the way we interpret this kind of research, we run the risk of drawing some whacky conclusions, just like we did with the Labradors. Let’s get back to some more news headlines, like this one we spotted: ‘Every hour per day watching TV increases risk of heart disease death by a fifth’.

When it comes to observational studies, you have to ask whether the association makes sense. Does it have ‘biological plausibility’? Are there harmful rays coming from the TV that damage our arteries or is it that the more time we spend on the couch watching TV, the less time we spend being active and improving our heart health. The latter is true, of course, and there’s an ‘association’ between TV watching and heart disease, not ‘causation’.

So even with cohorts, the champions of the epidemiological studies, we can’t prove causation, and that’s all down to what’s called ‘confounding’. This means there could be another variable at play that causes the disease being studied, at the same time as being associated with the risk factor being investigated. In our example, it’s the lack of physical activity that increases heart disease and is also linked to watching more TV.

This issue of confounding variables is just about the biggest banana skin of the lot. Time and time again you’ll find nutritional advice promoted on the basis of the findings of observational studies, as though this type of research gives us stone cold facts. It doesn’t. Any scientist will tell you that. This type of research is extremely useful for generating hypotheses, but it can’t prove them.

Rule #5: Be on the lookout for RCTs (randomized controlled trials)
An epidemiological study can only form a hypothesis, and when it offers up some encouraging findings, these then need to be tested in what’s known as an intervention, or clinical, trial before we can talk about causality. Intervention trials aim to test the hypothesis by taking a population that are as similar to each other as possible, testing an intervention on a proportion of them over a period of time and observing how it influences your measured outcome.

Why Asians are more prone to Type 2 diabetes than Westerners

Thirty-four year-old Alan Phua is what you might describe as a typical male Chinese man. He exercises for three to five times a week in a country that places a high emphasis on healthy lifestyles. He also carefully observes what he eats and is strict about his diet.

Alan lives in Singapore. In addition to military service for the duration of two and a half years when they turn eighteen, citizens have annual reservist training for two weeks until they turn forty. Failing to meet targets for physical exercises such as chin ups, standing broad jumps, sit ups, shuttle runs and a 1.5 mile run means remedial physical training every few months until these standards are meet. But not all is negative though. Meeting or exceeding these targets is rewarded by financial incentives. In other words, living in Singapore as a male means there is a strong push to keep fit and maintain it.

The reasons for this are very clear. Singapore is a small country surrounded by two large neighbours in Malaysia and Indonesia. Its population of five million citizens means that like Israel, it has to rely on a citizen reservist force should the threat of war ever loom. While most of the citizens there seem of the mindset that military war would never break out, as the country is so small that any military action would damage the infrastructure and paralyse it; furthermore, the military is only a deterrent force, the readiness to military action gives leverage in negotiations between nation. For example, if the countries disagree over the supply of water that Malaysia gives Singapore to refine, and the discussions escalate towards a military standoff, having a reservist army puts the country in a better negotiating position. But while many may claim that a war is hypothetical, there is a simpler reason for maintaining fitness. A fitter population means less stress on the healthcare system. Singapore is the sustainable healthcare system that many countries are seeking to adopt.

Like many others in Singapore, Alan’s body does not produce enough insulin. This, as a result, causes the accumulation of sugar in the bloodstream. The lack of insulin leads to other health issues, such as general fatigue, infections, or other effects such as the failure of wounds to heal. However, all is not lost. Eating properly and having a good level of exercise can prevent the blood glucose level from rising and developing into diabetes.

Local researchers from the country’s National University Hospital (NUH), working together with Janssen Pharmaceuticals, have discovered that the reason why Asians are moresusceptible than Westerners to developing Type 2 diabetes is the inability of their bodies to produce high enough levels of insulin.

Even though the finding was based only on a small sample size of 140 mostly Chinese participants, the data, if expanded and refined, will point the way and help patients with diabetes to manage it better; not just for local patients but also within the region. Doctors believe that better dietary advice and a better selection of drugs would help patients to treat diabetes. The preliminary findings are part of the country’s largest diabetes study launched last year. The five-year ongoing study has recruited around 1,300 participants, and aims to eventually nearly double that.

The researchers did however notice the ethnicity of the results was fairly restricted and more participants from a wider racial profile will be needed for the results to be applied to the general population.

Currently, the statistics show that one in three Singaporeans has a risk of developing diabetes. Currently, one out of every fourteen Singaporeans are diabetic. Type 2 diabetes comes about because insufficient insulin is produced by the pancreas, or because the body has insulin resistance.

A previous study that 8 per cent of Chinese people with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 23 have diabetes. A BMI of 23 is within the normal weight range for Caucasians, and the rate of diabetes development within Chinese people is four times more than their European counterparts. The researchers claimed that it highlighted the importance of avoiding too much high-glucose food such as those rich in simple carbohydrates which include white rice and sugar.

The findings could also lay the foundation for efforts to test whether therapies that target insulin secretion and the ability to make more insulin could be more effective in the local population, and lead to customised diabetes treatment.

What bearing does this have on us, and what action can we take? A good start would be to avoid eating high glucose food such as rice too often and managing our diet. Also try adopting a more active lifestyle!