Thursday, 4 June 2009

Tomato pill causes churnalism, very little analysis

The Express' latest 'miracle cure' headline was another one full of bluster and not much evidence. It wasn't the only media outlet to run with it however: Tomato pill 'beats heart disease' (BBC), The tomato pill that can beat heart disease (Mail), Tomatoes pill ‘is a lifesaver’ (Sun), Tomato compound used to help stave off heart disease (Telegraph) and Tomato pill that cleans arteries (Metro).

All of which shows a good press release in advance of a product launch can get you lots of publicity - the latest example proving Nick Davies' theory of churnalism. The stories were all published on 1 June, the pill was launched the same day at the British Cardiovascular Society in London.

The makers of the pill Ateronon issued two press releases on 31 May, one about the product and one made up of testimonials from 'health experts. Of the eleven people quoted in the two releases, the Express 'journalist' Dana Gloger copy-and-pastes eight of the comments.

The basis of all this is an anti-oxident called lycopene which is found in the skin of ripe tomatoes. Rather than just eat tomatoes, the science bods have tried to put lycopene in pill form. The Express reports: 'It is safe to rush into the shops because it is a natural product which does not need exhaustive drug testing'. Which is another slightly re-worded lift from the PR. But just because it is 'safe', by saying it doesn't need the 'protracted process of pharmaceutical approval' means you are avoiding a process which would prove whether it works or not.

So what do the NHS say? In a very revealing and interesting article, they say: 'To date, no studies have assessed the long-term health effects of this pill'. Oh. Really? And:

The Daily Express mentioned a study in 150 people with heart disease, which apparently resulted in a reduction of their blood lipid levels to almost zero in just eight weeks. At present, this research does not appear to be available for review and it is not clear where it was conducted or whether it has been published.

And:

There is some evidence to suggest that a Mediterranean-style diet, which is rich in tomatoes, is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and some cancers in humans... However, it is difficult to attribute the benefits seen in humans solely to the effects of lycopene. This can only be confirmed by a well-conducted randomised controlled trial.

And:

The promotional website for Ateronon mentions other research but doesn’t provide details of the studies or information about whether this research has been published in peer-reviewed journals.

And:

EU regulation states that food supplements making health claims must be supported by relevant research...the manufacturers mention two small, uncontrolled studies in people with coronary heart disease (12 and 10 people respectively)...

As these studies are unpublished there is limited information about their quality. However, both studies reportedly do not have comparison groups. This means it is not possible to conclude that this antioxidant activity is any different from what would happen by eating tomato products, or whether the changes would have happened anyway, regardless of treatment.

And there's me criticising others for copy-and-pasting...

But that seems to put the claims in a context sadly missing from the media reports, the Express in particular, which appear to be nothing but extended adverts for what is a commercial product. (The Guardian did a similar type of Q&A to the NHS article, but in less detail). But of course, none of the media would accept they indulge in churnalism. Oh no.

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