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Fish Oil Use in Pregnancy Didn’t Make Babies Smart


3 Star

Fish Oil Use in Pregnancy Didn’t Make Babies Smart

Our Review Summary

This story didn’t fare quite as well in our scoring as a competing Wall Street Journal story.  However, neither story adequately explained what can actually and effectively be measured at 18 months of age that is compelling.  Can anything definitively – pro or con – be said so early? Did the researchers get out ahead of themselves in reporting on this early interim phase when later followups are planned? 


Why This Matters

All of the issues discussed in this story – and in this research – the quest for "smarter babies," reduction of postpartum depression, and reduced risk of premature birth – are important issues that we think deserved a bit more detail. 


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No discussion of cost and we always think there should be.

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

Not Satisfactory

On the "smarter babies" issue, the story reported "no cognitive difference at 18 months whether mothers received DHA supplements or placebos." Perhaps that’s sufficient on the one issue. 

But then it also reported "the new study showed small reductions in postpartum depression in women with histories or high risk of depression."  What does "small reductions" mean?  Did it make much of a difference in women’s lives?  

And which issue mattered more to women – "smarter babies" or postpartum depression? 

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

Not Satisfactory

The story used terms like "no harm…safe…and apparently has few downsides."  Well, which is it?  No harm or few downsides?  And if the latter, then how few and of what kind?  This is too vague and confusing.

This may also be an area in which products that are not as tightly regulated as prescription drugs carry a potential downside.  Again, it’s hard to get real information about purity, quality standards and bioavailability for supplements. 

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

Not Satisfactory

Mixed bag on this criterion.

The story states that the new study was a "large study" – so maybe readers pick up on this and read into it that’s a good thing. And it says the new study was a "clinical trial." Conversely, it reported: "Some previous studies have suggested that DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid in fish oil, can aid in a baby’s brain development if taken during pregnancy. But many of those studies were small or observed women already taking fish oil, who might be more health-conscious."

But then it provided no data when it opened a whole new issue at the very end of the story:

"Some studies, including the new report, suggest DHA supplementation in pregnancy reduces the likelihood of premature birth. And the new study showed small reductions in postpartum depression in women with histories or high risk of depression. Dr. Scott Stuart, a University of Iowa psychiatry and psychology professor, said his pregnant patients with mild to moderate depression had improved when taking DHA while seeing a counselor."

Because how you end a piece may be the most influential – and because this was the least questioning part of the entire story – we are swayed to rule this unsatisfactory.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


No disease-mongering.  Good quotes from chief of maternal-fetal medicine at a leading Boston hospital: “I think the market is running way out in front of the science.”

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


There were several independent sources quoted/cited in the story.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

There was only a brief mention of alternatives on the postpartum depression issue – and that in the very last line: "“There’s no harm that we know of at all, in contrast to many antidepressants" – according to one doctor.  But that is insufficient context and comparison.

Ditto for this issue:  "Some studies, including the new report, suggest DHA supplementation in pregnancy reduces the likelihood of premature birth."  But how does this evidence (no data given in the story) compare with other attemtps to do the same thing? 

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


The widespread availability and use of fish oil is clear from the story.  Although the story would have helped readers more by reporting on issues of purity, quality control, and difficulties for consumers in assessing the quality of a source or brand.  This would have made it clear that this not a straightforward choice to just "take fish oil." 

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The past research on this topic was made clear.

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


It’s clear the story did not rely on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 10 Satisfactory


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