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Researchers in Italy Found Bergamot Lowered Blood Cholesterol

Rating

5 Star

Researchers in Italy Found Bergamot Lowered Blood Cholesterol

Our Review Summary

This story describes a potential cholesterol-lowering herbal supplement derived from the bitter citrus fruit, bergamot, found in Italy. It explains that four human studies have been published on the subject, and that all of these studies involved a cardiologist who is a paid scientific consultant to a company that sells the supplement extract. The story does a very nice job of describing the problem (that some people have muscle aches or side effects from statins), and that this extract appears to result in cholesterol reductions without those same side effects. The story could have done a better job explaining what the observed reductions in cholesterol might mean for someone’s overall cardiovascular risk, and describing the potential harms of taking unregulated supplements. That being said, the shortcomings of the supplement research are appropriately highlighted in a quote from a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist. He reminds us that we have data that statins improve health outcomes beyond simply lowering cholesterol, and that we do not have such evidence from bergamot studies.

 

Why This Matters

With the introduction of new cholesterol guidelines last year, a large proportion of the public will be recommended to take a statin for primary prevention of heart disease. Many patients experience side effects from statins or prefer herbal/natural products. Research on foods or supplements that lower cholesterol is helpful for people who want or need alternatives. However, it is important to understand the limitations of this research versus large, well-conducted studies of pharmaceuticals.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There are bergamot supplements on the market, but the price was not discussed. The cost of statins is also excluded.

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

Satisfactory

This story meets our standard by explaining that 1,000 milligrams daily of bergamot extract lowered cholesterol from an average of 278 milligrams per deciliter of blood to 191 in the study. But while many readers with high cholesterol likely understand the significance of these numbers, readers without them (but who are nonetheless interested in the story) would benefit from a clear example or description of the risks posed by high cholesterol. The story would also have been stronger had it told us how this reduction in cholesterol would affect one’s overall risk of a heart attack or stroke.

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

Satisfactory

The story noted that mild heartburn was the only side effect seen in the study, and that larger long-term studies are needed to establish safety. “I would tell a patient the caveat is, ‘If you want to try it, you need to be aware that we don’t really know its side effects,'” a researcher says.

We’d also add that the herbal supplement industry is not regulated or controlled in the same way as the pharmaceutical industry, i.e. there are fewer restrictions and enforcement, so relying on supplements to treat a condition can pose additional risks from potentially poor-quality or contaminated products.

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

Satisfactory

We aren’t told much about how the study was conducted. For example, was it randomized and blinded? Was there a placebo control group?

Those deficiencies aside, the story did an admirable job of explaining the limitations of existing research and putting the current study in context. Examples:

  • “Larger, independent studies in other countries are needed to confirm the results.”
  • “It would be beneficial for this to be reproduced [by another research group] in order to say that in fact this is a true cholesterol-lowering effect.”
  • “Statins have been shown to improve health outcomes, such as reducing heart attacks, while bergamot hasn’t yet met that rigorous test.”

On balance, we’ll rate this satisfactory.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

This story does not hype the problem of high cholesterol or the association with heart disease, which is obviously among the most important causes of death in developed countries. But we do wish the story had made the link between cholesterol and heart disease more explicit.

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

Satisfactory

Dr. David Frid, a cardiologist from the Cleveland Clinic, reminds us that the studies need to be reproduced in other populations, and that statins have been show to reduce heart attacks (not just cholesterol).

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

Because of the included quote about statins, we’ll award a satisfactory rating. The story could have mentioned how bergamot compares to other supplements that claim to lower cholesterol, and provided general information about a diet low in saturated fats and high in plant sources of foods.

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

Satisfactory

The supplements are already on the market and the story makes that clear.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story shares that several prior reports from the same research group have shown cholesterol reductions with the product.

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

Satisfactory

The story shows evidence of data gathering including speaking to experts and reviewing the literature. We can be sure that this story wasn’t based mainly on a news release.

Total Score: 9 of 10 Satisfactory

Comments (1)

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Greg

September 21, 2015 at 2:35 am

I have just completed 2 months of 500mg bergamot tablets twice a day, 30 mins before meals and followed up with a blood lipids test. I was hoping to surprise myself and my GP. Blood lipids showed not a single change. Certainly didn’t work for me! I’m a healthy fit 63 year old man, no medications and non smoker.

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