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CBS barely dodges observational study trap with hot chili pepper story

Rating

3 Star

Good news for people who love spicy food

Our Review Summary

The story opens with a click-bait headline, a brief description of the main study finding, and then pulls its own punch by detailing the limitations of the observational study. We’re pleased to see the caveats high up before any readers head to the grocery to buy some red hot chili peppers. But we’d be happier to see such a story be put into more context, with some discussion of other dietary factors that affect death rates and some outside experts to comment on what this study really means for the American eaters of any kind of peppers.

 

Why This Matters

How dietary factors may influence life — how long and vigorously one lives — is of great interest to readers of health news. And yet dietary research that focuses on singular ingredients (or individual nutrients) inevitably ends up being click-baity. Regardless of how well a study is reported, these stories contribute to the deification/demonization of specific foods. In turn, it fuels the idea of superfoods and fad diets while simultaneously distracting from bigger picture issues around healthy living.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Not applicable. The intervention was an easily available and inexpensive food.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story says the benefit was a 13% lower risk of death, but relative risks can be misleading to the average reader as we point out in this primer on the topic.

​The study itself says that study participants were followed for a median of 19 years and 21.6% of consumers of red hot chili peppers died during followup as compared to 33.6% of abstainers. But those numbers might also be misleading, because they don’t reflect adjustment for other factors (age, race, physical activity, etc) that may have affected the outcomes.

​So in this case there likely isn’t a perfect way to express the size of the benefit observed by the researchers. Given imperfect options, however, we think it’s always a good idea to give the absolute rate of whatever outcomes are being discussed — e.g. something like “21.6% of chili consumers died during the study period compared with 33.6% of abstainers.” That’s intuitively more meaningful than saying, “consumption of hot red chili peppers was associated with a 13 percent lower risk of death.” 13% lower than what?

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

Satisfactory

The story addresses potential harms from eating red hot chili peppers, by quoting an expert source warning about discomfort and worsening symptoms in people with digestive disorders such as stomach ulcers.

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

Satisfactory

Despite the overoptimistic title, the story discusses limitations of the research clearly and early on. The study is described as observational and plainly says no cause and effect relationship can be established. It also mentions that there’s no good understanding of the mechanism by which red hot chili peppers might influence risk of death.

But with observational studies there are always caveats. The study also found an association between those who consumed more hot red chili peppers and gender, age, ethnicity, marriage status, smoking and alcohol consumption, certain diet preferences, lower HDL-cholesterol levels, and lowered income and education levels. The study might have focused on one of those variables instead of longevity.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story doesn’t engage in disease mongering.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story cites phrases from the paper itself, but otherwise the study authors are not quoted. The only true quote is pulled from a 2015 CBS News story about another study in which eating spicy food is linked to lower risk of death; the quote comes from that study’s author. No other sources were quoted, which could have given the story much needed context.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

Of all the things people might do to live a longer, healthier, life, how does eating red hot chili peppers stack up? The reader of this story has no help evaluating how 13% decrease risk of death compares to other dietary factors, such as the fruit and vegetable recommendations included in USDA dietary guidelines.

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

Not Applicable

Red hot chili pepper are widely available in American supermarkets.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story doesn’t claim novelty but says the study “strengthens the growing body of evidence that spicy food may have protective health properties that can lead to a longer life.”

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

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 8 Satisfactory

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