Daily Mail Recommend Food In Pill Form

September 7, 2009 at 4:12 pm (Media, Nutritionism) (, , , )

The Daily Mail (backup copy: here) has published an article on a tomato pill that includes a headline claim that “Daily dose is as good for the heart as Mediterranean food”. The article itself, meanwhile, boldly proclaims that “British scientists have developed a groundbreaking pill which provides all the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet”.

First, let us consider whether the pill is worth buying: for £35 per month you will get (according to the Mail) all the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. This is, however, a spend of £35 on top of your monthly grocery bill – it may actually be cheaper to follow a Mediterranean diet than to follow your normal diet and supplement it with a pill. I’ve pointed out before that it makes more sense economically to get your omega 3 fatty acids from oily fish than from fish oil pills and I suspect the same is true of tomato pills and the Mediterranean diet.

Secondly, let us consider the evidence that this pill is as effective as the Mediterranean diet in terms of cardiovascular disease. There is no indication in the Mail’s article as to whether the study performed into this pill has been published in a respectable peer-reviewed journal (or even been published) – or whether it has been replicated by other scientists (large scale trials are planned, apparently). Nor is there any indication that the pill has actually been compared to the Mediterranean diet – the article simply points out that the pill could halt or reverse “the buildup of fatty deposits on artery walls in just two months, without side-effects”. As long as the mainstream media fail to provide links or citations to the trials they discuss, we will not be able to judge the validity of the research or of the conclusions that the researchers or the media have drawn. This is a serious failing on the part of the media.

Thirdly, the article states quite clearly that the pill in question “provides all the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet”. If I may be pedantic for a moment, I would like to point out that the study referred to by the Mail apparently simply looked at the effects of a tomato pill on the buildup of fatty deposits – the Mediterranean diet may have health benefits in other areas that the pill does not. The abstract of this paper states that “the Mediterranean diet can reduce disease activity, pain and stiffness in patients with inflammatory arthritis and may thus constitute a valuable support for patients suffering from these diseases”; while the abstract of this paper states that “A Mediterranean diet pattern appears to be favorable for a reduced cancer risk”.

Conclusions

1. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

2. Don’t take too seriously anything you read in the mainstream media on health.

Predictions

1. The media will continue to promote miracle pills, whether there is good evidence for them or not.

2. Entrepeneurs will continue to sell food components in pill form whether or not there is good reason to take these pills rather than simply eat a healthy diet.

3. The media will continue to publish stories about scientific research into health and will continue to fail to provide adequate information about the research they are discussing – let alone link to or properly cite the research. Often, the research will be unpublished.

9 Comments

  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Daily Mail Recommend Food In Pill Form « Stuff And Nonsense [jdc325.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com said,

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  2. DBH said,

    Great post! I’d add a 3rd conclusion though:

    3. Never take what the Daily Mail publishes seriously.

    I am sure a Mediterranean diet would be rather tasty. Somehow I don’t think I’ll get any satisfaction out of a £35 a month pill.

  3. jdc325 said,

    Good point there DBH – as well as the added health benefits of good food over bad food plus pills and the economic argument, there’s the taste factor too.

    I like to think of the Daily Mail as the journalistic equivalent of a drunk talking to you in the pub. There may be the occasional moment of clarity, but the majority of what you read/hear will be nonsense. (Or there’s the Withnail & I analogy – even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.)

  4. apgaylard said,

    Thanks for reading the Fail so I don’t have to. This should be recognised as some sort of public service!

    This pill obsession might be even worse than a waste of money or a loss of an opportunity to eat some nice food. It may even encourage people to think that positively bad habits could be compensated for a by a pill.

    An extreme example (I hope): I was talking to someone recently who siad they made sure to get their “five fruits” a day to counterbalance their smoking. That nearly stunned me into silence.

  5. jdc325 said,

    “It may even encourage people to think that positively bad habits could be compensated for by a pill.”
    Yes, that’s actually something I’ve come across before. You have reminded me that I have an example very similar to yours. Someone was taking vitamin supplements to make up for smoking cigarettes. Which, particularly in light of this study, was a bit worrying. Apart from these examples (which are perhaps extreme) it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a number of people took supplements like the tomato pill to make up for eating junk food. To an extent, newspapers like the Daily Mail are telling their readers what they want to hear with regards health advice.

    Slightly off-topic, I’ve also known people who latch onto dubious health advice about aspartame or Wifi being deadly but who are happy to continue to smoke. Bizarrely, it seems that ill effects that are not obviously apparent are sometimes taken more seriously than those that are well-known. Speculation about Wifi can be more worrying to some than good evidence about smoking.

    There’s also the person who assured me that their particular smoking habits weren’t harmful because they chose to use a water pipe to smoke cannabis and this pipe filtered out all the harmful compounds (there’s a webpage here that states “Contrary to popular impression, waterpipes don’t necessarily protect smokers from harmful tars in marijuana smoke, according to a new study” – linky.)

  6. AndyD said,

    I’ve often what percentage of anti-vax parents smoke and if they ensure their kids are never remotely exposed to it.

  7. jdc325 said,

    Interesting thought Andy – it wouldn’t surprise me, given how poor people are at assessing risk*, if a number of anti-vax parents were exposing their children to second-hand smoke.

    *I include myself here, of course. Very few are adept at assessing risk and sadly I am not one of them.

  8. Neuroskeptic said,

    I doubt the pill is as delicious as a real Mediterranean diet, either.

  9. molyneux1000 said,

    I’d just like to support the “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” ‘motto’ (attributed to the excellent anti-nutritionism writer, Michael Pollan). I think the first point is poignant to this particular article. Eat food? That’s right, real food. Avoid the chemicals and the pills. To aid you in achieving this, Pollan suggests you shop through the eyes of your great grandmother. If she wouldn’t recognise the product or (ingredients within it), then avoid. Tomato pill? Avoid.

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