Health News Review

Not much different or better than its HealthDay competition on a story for which the newsworthiness is questionable.

Our Review Summary

The story sounds cheerleading when it states, “If green coffee extract were a medication seeking approval from the FDA, these results would make it a viable candidate.”

That’s a pretty rah-rah definition of what makes a viable candidate.

No drug will be approved based on a 16-person, 6-week pilot study.  And no drug would be approved with such an absence of information about potential harms.


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

The story states that green coffee extract is available at roughly $20 per month.

Not Satisfactory

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

Not Satisfactory

As with the competing Health Day story, this story didn’t provide some key details of the “cross-over” study.

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 says that weight loss “appeared to be greater while subjects were taking the pills than when they were on the placebo” but offers no specifics. 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.

Satisfactory

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

Satisfactory

Better than the HealthDay story on this criterion, quoting 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

We’ll make the same observation we made with the competing HealthDay story: the study that forms the basis for the story hasn’t been published and (at least when HealthDay reported on it) hadn’t even been 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.

For example:

  • The story says there was a “placebo” phase, but that the active extract was “extremely bitter.” Did subjects know if they were taking an “extremely bitter” pill or a placebo?
  • The story says, “Subjects did not change their calorie intake over the course of the trial.” But it offers no detail on how this was measured. People are notoriously inaccurate when recalling what they’ve eaten.

And readers’ heads may have been spinning at the juxtaposition of descriptions within the story:

  • “Though the study was small, the results were striking”
  • “may hold the key to cheap and effective weight loss” vs. “seems an unwise thing to do.”

16 people.

Short-term use.

Unpublished data presented at a meeting.

Those are the key things to emphasize if you’re going to give this any publicity at all.

Not Applicable

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Not Applicable

Since we weren’t told anything about the weight of the people being studied, we can’t make any judgment about disease-mongering.

Satisfactory

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

Satisfactory

Two independent experts added important perspectives to the story.

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

One can infer the availability of the extract from the story.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The story seems to imply that this is a first of its kind study – “the findings should pave the way for more rigorous research.”

But HealthDay, in its story, explained that “prior research had been conducted in both France and Japan.”

Satisfactory

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

Satisfactory

Because of the strong independent perspectives used, it’s clear the story did not rely solely on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 9 Satisfactory


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