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US News story confused about difference between rats and people

Rating

1 Star

Health Buzz: Dried Plums May Reduce Colon Cancer Risk The sweet snack can affect gut bacteria, researchers say.

Our Review Summary

plumsYet another miracle food to add to the list. This story excites the reader at the prospect of eating dried plums to reduce the risk of colon cancer. In a study on rats, researchers from Texas A&M University found that a diet consisting of dried plums promotes beneficial bacteria in the colon and reduces the development of precancerous lesions. But does a reduction in such lesions (not actual cancers) in a rat mean that a human eating more plums would have less risk of developing cancer? The story eagerly suggests that “people who eat dried plums as part of a regular diet can reduce their risk for developing colon cancer.” But we think that statement is totally inappropriate based on this animal study. In fact, human readers would be “plum” crazy to change their diet based on this research.

 

Why This Matters

According to the National Cancer Institute, colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, and approximately $13.8 billion is spent annually on providing colon cancer care. Colon cancer prevention is a top priority, but when risk factors include age, obesity, alcohol consumption, and physical inactivity, dried plums may not be the most appropriate intervention.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Although it was not explicitly mentioned in the article, most readers understand that dried plums are a low-cost intervention.

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

Not Satisfactory

The headline of this story is misleading. The idea that dried plums “may reduce colon cancer risk” is simply not supported by the study. The study looked at levels of bacteria and the number of precancerous lesions in rats — the idea that this has a relationship to risk of actual colon cancer in humans is not tenable and an overstatement. Beyond that, the article doesn’t quantify in any way the effects of the plums on bacteria levels or, more importantly, on the number of precancerous lesions observed.

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

Not Satisfactory

We don’t want to overstate the risks here, but it’s pretty well known that plums have high fiber content and accordingly can produce unpleasant effects on the digestive system. According to the website of the California Plum Board (also the funders of this study), healthy adults can incorporate 10-12 dried plums daily into their diet without significant changes in their bowel habits. The website also includes the caveat that everyone has different digestive reactions, and some people may want to start with smaller amounts. A nod to this concern would have earned the story a Satisfactory rating.

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

Not Satisfactory

The lede says, “PEOPLE who eat dried plums as part of a regular diet can reduce their risk for developing colon cancer” (our emphasis added). But this study looked at RATS — not PEOPLE. The story waits too long to alert readers to the fact that this is an animal study. Findings based on animal studies should identify that fact early in the story so that readers — humans — can gauge the story’s importance to them, not to rats.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There is no exaggeration of colon cancer or the outcomes of the disease.

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

Not Satisfactory

Not only does the article fail to bring in any outside testimonial, it also does not mention that the research was sponsored by the California Dried Plum Board.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The article makes no mention of any other prevention tactics for colon cancer, and how the consumption of dried plums compares. The American Cancer Society recommends changes in diet as one of the six ways to prevent colon cancer, but notes that eating more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains can contribute to better colon health. Dried plums seem to only be a small part of that strategy, and the reader should understand that an overall healthy diet could be effective as well. Following recommended colon cancer screening practices is also an effective method of reducing cancer risk.

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

Not Applicable

It is assumed that dried plums are readily available at your local grocery store, so even though the story didn’t discuss availability, we won’t ding the story for this. We’ll rule it Not Applicable.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The story positions this research as a “discovery” that is applicable to people — an overstatement at best. It also does not accurately present the intervention in the context of similar research on the effects of a healthy diet.

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

Not Satisfactory

The article does not employ any outside sources about the effects of diet on colon cancer, and its only quotes are pulled directly from this news release. Although the story appropriately acknowledges the fact that the news release is the source for these quotes, we don’t see any information in the story that didn’t also appear in the release. So we’re inclined to rule this Not Satisfactory.

Total Score: 1 of 8 Satisfactory

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