This story about selenium’s effects on cholesterol points out some key limitations in a new study. It explains that the trial was conducted in Britain, where people generally have lower selenium intakes than in the U.S. — so the results may not apply here. And it was careful not to suggest that selenium might be an alternate to statin drugs or other remedies for high cholesterol. The story did not provide as many details as the competing Reuters report on this study, however. The effects of selenium on cholesterol levels were not quantified, and there was no information on costs.
Selenium is a component of multivitamins taken by millions of Americans on a daily basis. Selenium supplements are also taken individually in the hope that they will ward off chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. While there isn’t much evidence that supplementation reduces the risk of these diseases in healthy individuals (and might increase the risk of diabetes), the results of this new research at least provide some reassurance that selenium won’t raise your cholesterol, which might increase your cardiovascular risk.
The cost of selenium supplements probably isn’t a big issue for most individual consumers, but across our society the costs are substantial. Some discussion of this would have been appropriate.
Although the story correctly explains that selenium supplements are not an effective means to reduce cholesterol levels, the coverage is too vague when it says that individuals taking selenium “experienced a slight drop in both bad cholesterol (LDL) and overall cholesterol levels” and that “Good cholesterol (HDL) levels rose a bit solely among those assigned to the highest selenium dosage.” Instead of relying on imprecise descriptions such as “slight” and “a bit,” the story should have provided the actual numbers, as the competing Reuters story did. The Reuters story also described the ranges for normal and elevated cholesterol levels, which helps puts the changes observed into context.
The story was a little confusing on this point. It initially says that selenium’s safety “has not been studied,” but later quotes a researcher who says there is an increased risk for type 2 diabetes with selenium supplements in individuals whose blood levels are already high. The story does note that there were no serious side effects in the selenium supplement users participating in this study, but it could have qualified this by mentioning the relatively short duration of the study (6 months) and the potential for problems with longer-term use. Too much selenium can also, in rare cases, result in condition called selenosis, which includes symptoms such as gastrointestinal upsets, hair loss, white blotchy nails, garlic breath odor, fatigue, irritability, and mild nerve damage.
A toss-up here, but since the story indicated that this was not a risk-free intervention and reported on the study findings as appropriate, we’ll rule it satisfactory.
The story discusses some limitations of the study, including the fact that participants were all from the UK, where selenium intake is lower than in the U.S; Americans won’t necessarily experience the same cholesterol reductions seen in the study. The story is also careful to explain that selenium had a “minor impact” on cholesterol and is “not advisable as an effective means to combat high cholesterol.” We wish that the story had included more information about the design of the study, particularly the dosage of selenium taken in each of the 3 supplementation groups. The story describes the dosages as “low” “intermediate” or “high,” but it should have quantified them. Overall, though, we’ll call it good enough for a satisfactory.
The story doesn’t exaggerate the prevalence of selenium deficiency or otherwise try to scare people into taking supplements.
An independent expert source was quoted and there were no obvious conflicts of interest that weren’t disclosed.
The story notes that bread in the U.S. is a good source of selenium, and that U.S. consumers generally have no need to take a supplement. So, there’s really no need to talk about alternatives. We’ll rule it not applicable.
The story doesn’t really explain what selenium is, why someone would want to take a selenium supplement, or where one can find them. While many readers will know the answers to these questions, selenium is obscure enough, in our view, to warrant at least some background context on these issues.
The story states that many other studies have looked at the cholesterol impact of selenium supplements, with differing results.
We couldn’t find a news release that was issued for this particular study. But by including an independent expert source, the story assures us that it didn’t rely exclusively on PR materials.