Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Mail: If frying a steak gives you cancer, use rhubarb and dynamite to cure it

A quick look at some of the sensationalised health stories that have popped up in the Mail recently.

Firstly, Pat Hagan's article How dynamite could help destroy prostate cancer, which sounds like rubbish before you even read any more. It begins:

A chemical once used as a deadly explosive could be a powerful new treatment for prostate cancer.

British scientists have discovered a skin patch containing minute doses of nitroglycerine appears to stop some tumours in their tracks.

Except, it doesn't. At the end of the story:

Cancer Research UK warned...there is still no proof that it actually affects the rate of tumour growth.


Could baked Yorkshire rhubarb help beat cancer? This one started life in the Telegraph and the question mark in the headline suggests no, of course it can't. The Daily Mail Reporter began:

Eating baked rhubarb could help fight cancer, research suggests.

But when the NHS investigated the claims, they found:

The published research did not investigate the effect of rhubarb extracts (or polyphenols) on cancer cells or human health in general. The study only looked at how the concentrations of these chemicals in rhubarb were affected by different cooking methods.


the study is limited by the fact that the researchers did not publish any statistical analysis of their results. This means it is not possible to say the differences they observed with different cooking times and methods did not arise by chance.


The 'cancer risk' of frying steak on a gas hob
. Yes, really. Add this one to the list. Jenny Hope's article says:

Frying meat on a gas hob may increase your risk of cancer, researchers claim.

They found fumes from steak pan-fried on a gas flame contained more cancer-causing particles than those from an electric hob.

Scientists believe hotter gas flames release more harmful chemicals from oil in the cooking process and warn that chefs may be particularly at risk.

'Hotter gas flames'? Does that even make sense? Surely it depends on the temperature rather than what's created the flame.

Back the NHS for another rebuttal:

Although The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail stated that the amounts of the chemicals produced during cooking were within safety limits, this fact was not adequately emphasised in their reports and their coverage tended to sensationalise the story.

This research looked at the chemical composition of cooking fumes. It did not look at the health consequences of exposure to the chemicals produced by cooking, as could be assumed from reading the media reports.


This study did not directly measure the health effects of cooking fumes, and overall it does not provide evidence that exposure to the fumes from cooking steak is bad for your health.

(Hat-tips to Uponnothing and Ben Goldacre)


  1. "Eating baked rhubarb could help fight cancer"

    'Could help fight'? Man alive, it's not often you see all three bullshit-science weasel words in such close proximity.
    'Could' - Well yes, and I COULD stick a Swingball up Vernon Kay's arse. Technically true, but hampered by the fact that I don't have a Swingball close to hand and I'm nowhere near Vernon Kay's arse.
    'Help' - Much like I helped address the problem of rising sea levels by filling a flask with sea-water at the beach, sealing it shut and putting it in the shed. That particular bit of sea-water won't be washing anyone's sofa down Boscastle High Street any time soon.
    'Fight' - When you think about it, picking up any hairs which fall out of my head and carefully placing them back on my scalp does count towards fighting my impending slapheadedness.

    Charlie Brooker explained it much better than me on Screenwipe a while ago. Bound to be on Youtube.

  2. I suppose all you can say in the Mail's defence is that in a world where everything either caused or cured cancer, it would be fairly important to know how to divide things up.

  3. So, what if I were to fry some rhubarb, huh? What about THAT, hacks?


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