Health News Review

Weak story on a weak, tiny, short-term manufacturer-funded study suggesting weight loss from a supplement containing unroasted coffee bean extract. The LA Times also covered it.

 

Our Review Summary

The primary source material was a 150-word abstract that hasn’t been peer-reviewed and will be presented this week sometime at a conference. Not surprisingly, the story is short on the kind of detail that would make the 17-pound weight loss that the researchers attribute to this supplement seem credible. And while we credit the story for pointing out the abundant lack of specifics here, we feel that the editors did readers a disservice by reporting on this study so prematurely. They should share the blame for the confusion that this preliminary report will surely generate.


Why This Matters

Eat chocolate, lose weight.

Eat white rice, get diabetes.

Eat red meat, go to an early grave.

These are just a few of the sensational messages that some news stories have been putting out in recent weeks based on studies that need to be interpreted very cautiously. Now here is a weak, 16-person study about green coffee extract that’s being reported on well before it’s ready for prime time. To what purpose? Researchers and news outlets may get a temporary PR bump from reporting on studies like these, but it’s doing long term damage to the credibility of health (and especially nutrition) science.

Incidentally, the researcher on this study is making the media rounds this week: he’s also touting popcorn for having “more antioxidants than many kinds of fresh fruit.” (261 returns on Google search at this hour – NY Daily News, ABC News, Houston Chronicle, Chicago Sun-Times, Fox News, SF Chronicle, Indianapolis Star, MSNBC.com, CNN, etc., etc., etc.)  His web page also shows that he’s a big believer in the health benefits of chocolate.  See a pattern here in how easy it is to get news coverage?


Criteria

Satisfactory

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Satisfactory

“Green coffee-bean extracts are sold online at prices ranging from about $10 to $20 for 60 capsules,” according to the story.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story says that the patients lost an average of 17 pounds or 10.5 percent of their bodyweight after 6 months. Ok, but the story also says that the study involved three distinct phases where subjects were taking different doses of the coffee extract or a placebo. Was the weight loss seen only while the subjects were taking the active extract, or did it also occur when patients were taking the placebo pills (indicating that the weight loss was due to some other factor, such as their overall diet or exercise levels)? The story doesn’t tell us. To score a satisfactory here, we’d need to see a more thorough reporting of how much weight was lost during the three trial periods.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story quotes a researcher who says weight loss in the study was achieved “without side effects.” That’s not good enough – not without any acknowledgment that a 16-person study can’t tell us very much about the adverse effects of any treatment.

The story does make the point that weight loss supplements are not necessarily tested for purity and have been found to contain undeclared ingredients in the past.  Although we’d like to see some more detail on what adverse effects might be cause by these spiked supplements (for example: kidney failure, heart problems, etc).

The LA Times’ story, by comparison, quoted an expert on a specific concern about malabsorption within the gut – “a condition that would lead to weight loss as well as malnutrition, heart arrhythmias and other problems.”

Not Satisfactory

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

To its credit, the story notes that this was a “small, preliminary” study and it quoted an expert who cautioned that the study “is short on specifics, making it difficult to draw any conclusions.” This is, if anything, an understatement.

Such caveats would normally be enough to merit a satisfactory rating here. But in this case, we feel that the lack of specifics was an avoidable defect caused by rushing the story to publication. As noted above, the study that forms the basis for the story hasn’t been published or even presented at a scientific conference. And many of the questions we have about the study might have been answered had the story waited for some additional vetting.

One issue that is inexplicably vague is what else the study subjects were eating while they were losing 11% of their bodyweight. The story says that subjects “maintained their pre-study dietary and exercise regimens” while they lost the weight. Though the study doesn’t say exactly, presumably this means that most subjects were overeating and not exercising very much, since the subjects entering the study were described as “overweight and obese.” But in a press release issued about the study, the lead author suggests that the subjects may have been “eating a low-fat, healthful diet and exercising regularly” during the study. That sounds more like the kind of approach that might lead you to lose 11% of your bodyweight after 6 months, regardless of whether you were taking a coffee bean extract.

The upshot is we can’t tell for certain what was happening in this study. What else were the subjects eating? Did they know they were taking an “extremely bitter” pill or a placebo? All questions that should be answered before trumpeting these results to the public.

Not Applicable

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Not Applicable

The story was vague about the weight of the study subjects – “16 overweight and obese patients.”

Satisfactory

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

An independent expert commented on the wisdom (or lack thereof) of basing this story on a 16-person study described only in a yet-to-be-presented meeting abstract. It also mentions that the study was funded by the supplement manufacturer.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story did not compare green coffee extract with other approaches to weight loss, such as dietary changes or drugs.

Satisfactory

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story notes that green coffee bean extract is sold online.

Satisfactory

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story nods to previous research which apparently found mild weight loss effects from green coffee extract. Although we wish some detail about that previous work had been provided.

Satisfactory

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The study included enough independent commentary to assure us that it wasn’t based entirely on a press release.

Total Score: 5 of 9 Satisfactory


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