Temple University again greases the clickbait machine with canola oil study

Mary Chris Jaklevic is a freelance health care reporter and frequent contributor to HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @mcjaklevic.

Scientists should be lauded for investigating health claims used to a market a product. But when preliminary findings are reported to the public without appropriate context, that’s a problem.

And it’s one that we’ve seen twice in the past six months at Temple University.

In June we criticized an overreaching university news release: “Temple study: Extra-virgin olive oil preserves memory & protects brain against Alzheimer’s.” The study, based on research in just 22 mice that had been bred to develop Alzheimer’s-like plaques in the brain, didn’t show any connection between human brain health and olive oil. And it only belatedly mentioned the fact that the research was conducted in mice. But this did not deter several news outlets — including USA Today, Newsweek, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Philadelphia Inquirer — from covering it anyway.

The study compared mice given a standard diet with mice given a standard diet plus a tablespoon of olive oil daily in terms of their performance on memory tests.

HealthNewsReview.org Deputy Managing Editor Joy Victory touched on some of the many problems with that study, and the resulting coverage, writing:

Stating the obvious, here, but genetically modified mice are a far, far cry from people. And just because you’re able to reduce amyloid buildup in those genetically modified mice, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do the same thing in humans.

In fact, even drugs that apparently do a great job of getting rid of amyloid in thousands of actual humans don’t seem to have much effect on the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Six months later, you’d hope that whomever is responsible for this messaging might have rethought their approach. But no, they’re at it again, this time with a similarly shaky study using the same methodology to claim canola oil could be bad for the brain. Yesterday Temple issued this attention-grabbing news release: Canola oil linked to worsened memory & learning ability in Alzheimer’s.

Once again, the headline jumps way ahead of what the research actually shows.

Nevertheless, the clickbait machine is whirring again. We spotted these hastily reported stories:

Only the Inquirer warned readers about relying on a mouse study, stating in the second paragraph: “The results should be viewed with caution because what happens in mice often does not happen in people.” But that warning came only after baiting readers with the overreaching headline.

The Inquirer’s story also contains information that’s not in the news release and does serve to temper some of the hype. It reports that the senior investigator “considers the study a ‘red flag’ for canola oil users, though he would not tell people to stop eating it,” that he plans to experiment with different fats and doses “to see how much is needed to induce brain changes and whether changes are reversible,” and that he acknowledges not knowing why canola oil and olive oil might affect the brain differently.

Unfortunately, none of these news outlets sought comments from outside experts who could have added much-needed perspective. That’s one of several tips we offer in: “How to report on preliminary Alzheimer’s research results.” 

It’s good when researchers look into the health effects of products, like canola oil, that are promoted with industry-funded research. But this new study doesn’t say anything meaningful for consumers; it’s simply one more example of the overblown diet claims that drive public skepticism of the field of nutrition science.

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Comments (1)

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Kevin Folta

December 10, 2017 at 11:23 am

Well done. I was really shocked by how irresponsibly this is being interpreted and disseminated. It looks like it starts a little with the authors, but a lot with the Temple University press release. What the report shows is that disease-model mice fattened up with oil have some differences in behavior and neural biochemistry markers. That’s it!