We typically love the Healthy Skeptic column and truly look forward to its thoughtful analysis of health claims being made for various products and treatments. In this piece about DHA supplements, though, we felt there wasn’t enough hard-hitting skepticism. The story did a great job explaining the supplements themselves and discussing the way they are marketed. It also provided good cost information. Most importantly, it presented strong evidence to counter the claims that DHA makes kids smarter. That evidence, however, was undercut by the only two people quoted in the story. Two medical doctors who give their own children DHA. These experts essentially say that kids should take the supplements even if the evidence supporting its benefit is weak. The article quotes one of these experts saying, “There’s no downside to it.” Glossing over potential risks and touting uNPRoven benefits are usually areas where the Healthy Skeptic finds fault. We fear this story will become yet another piece of marketing for an health supplement that has no documented health benefit.
Young children don’t make most diet choices for themselves, and they certainly don’t buy themselves health supplements. Parents understandably want to help their children succeed in school, and if they see a possible brain booster in a product such as a DHA supplement, they are going to buy it, especially if they see the product being touted in the Los Angeles Times and other mainstream publications. The Times owes it to its readers to be more critical of these products and to help parents understand what reasonable steps they can take to help their children do well in school without taking an unnecessary pill.
The story helpfully gives the price information for both products described.
Even in the two studies that are cited, the benefits of DHA are not quantified.
We don’t understand how you can note the lack of research on a topic, quote a study showing that children’s behavior actually worsened while taking the pills but then give the send-off take-message at the end to a doctor saying he gives it to his kids and, “There’s no downside to it.” How you end such a story is what you leave many readers walking away with more powerfully than anything else in the piece.
The story allows the medical experts quoted to give equal weight to their hunches about the supplements as it does to the two studies cited late in the piece. For example, the first evidence introduced in the article is this: “Undoubtedly, DHA is an important nutrient for the brain and other organs of the body, says Usha Ramakrishnan, an associate professor of global health at Emory University in Atlanta who specializes in childhood nutrition. From time to time, she has purchased DHA-enhanced milk for her own child, who is now 9.” One can only speculate that readers everywhere ordered a bottle online right after reading that sentence. It is only much later in the story that two studies are cited. Both found no real intelligence benefit from DHA. One “found that giving kids a supplement containing 88 mg of DHA every day for a year slightly improved verbal learning and memory scores but didn’t seem to affect overall intelligence or the ability to pay attention.” Another found “that taking a supplement containing 200 mg of DHA every day for 16 weeks had almost no measurable effect on thinking skills or academic performance.” Making matters worse, “children receiving the DHA actually had slightly worse reports from teachers than the children taking a placebo.” Despite all of that, the article goes on to cite another expert urging parents to give the kids to their pills.
The story avoids disease-mongering. It puts the supplements in just the right context by saying, “Tutors, counseling, stern lectures and good old-fashioned wishful thinking are all possibilities. But some moms and dads also try to give their kids a nutritional edge in the classroom with the help of supplements.”
The story quotes a very well established nutritional researcher, Dr. John Colombo, who gives the advice that parents should give their children supplements, noting that he does so with his own kids. The story should have pointed out that he has been a consultant for two different companies that make DHA products, Mead Johnson, the maker of the DHA-enriched Enfamil infant formula, and Fonterra, maker of Anchor Vital and other DHA supplements.
The story did not help parents understand that they have other options besides giving their kids an uNPRoven pill. There have been other studies to show that overall diet can play a role in a child’s attention span and ability to learn, which has been one of the main drivers behind school breakfast programs. Exercise can help sharpen a child’s attention span, as can reading more and watching less television. These are not as simple or easy as taking a pill, but it wouldn’t take much to mention them.
The story nicely explains the availability of DHA supplements. As always with this feature, it gives readers just enough context to jar their memory about ads they may have seen for the product.
No claims are made about the novelty of these supplements, so this is not applicable.
The story does not rely on a news release. We find it interesting, though, that the story actually goes beyond what the DHA supplement companies say about their own products. “The website for life’sDHA simply says that it’s a “supplement for brain, eye and heart health.” Cassie France-Kelly, a spokeswoman for Martek Biosciences, says DHA is as important for the brain as calcium is for the bones. “The bottom line is that kids need it, but they don’t get enough of it in their diets,” she says.” And yet, later in the story, Usha Ramakrishnan at Emory University says, “… although the evidence isn’t exactly air-tight, there is reason to believe that DHA supplements could help some children perform better in the classroom, especially if their minds have a tendency to wander.”