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LA Times story mischaracterizes studies on intestinal microbiome

Wine and coffee lovers, drink up! It's great for your microbiome

Our Review Summary

microbiome and gut flora and digestive healthThe news article reports on two research studies that attempt to establish the most common microorganisms found in the human digestive system. The news story does a good job of presenting the scientific results in an accessible manner, but it unfortunately made health claims not backed by the evidence.

  • First, drinking more wine and coffee is hardly the take-away lesson of the original studies, which were purely observational in nature–we cannot conclude from their findings that increased consumption of wine and coffee leads to greater microbiome diversity. And, more importantly, we also have no idea if greater microbiome diversity is actually better for your health, as that remains a hypothesis.
  • Second, even if that hypothesis is proved true, it is hard at this point to translate exactly how much and which aspect of your health improves from having greater gut diversity. It remains to be seen if the benefit of greater gut diversity could justify the downsides of drinking more wine and coffee.
  • Overall, the major scientific contribution of the studies–identifying the composition of a healthy gut–is not highlighted enough. Rather it takes a backseat to the sound bite to “drink more wine and coffee.”

 

Why This Matters

Establishing a “normal” gut microbiome profile may be beneficial for many future clinical studies yet remains under-investigated.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

These were not “treatment” studies so discussing costs is not relevant. However, the way the story is written could make readers think they should start buying more wine and coffee, which isn’t what the findings showed.

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

Not Satisfactory

There is nothing in the news story that quantifies the benefits of the claim made–that drinking wine or coffee is “great for your microbiome.” This is a major problem with the story, as it’s making a claim not found anywhere in the findings.

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

Not Satisfactory

Because this story puts forth the idea that certain foods (especially coffee and wine) are good for microbial diversity–and that’s a health claim–there should be an acknowledgement that these foods also can carry harms. There was no mention of the size of the dose–how much coffee? How much wine? And people may take that lack of dosing to mean whatever they want, including having more than is beneficial and veers into unhealthy or dangerous.

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

Not Satisfactory

The research is purely observational in nature–as explained earlier, we cannot conclude that increased consumption of wine and coffee leads to greater microbiome diversity, nor if that is even important for overall health. In some ways, the story acknowledges this, by stating certain behaviors are “associated with” microbial diversity. But in other ways it reverts to cause/effect language. Example: “the scientists found that consuming fruits, vegetables and yogurt positively influenced microbial diversity in the gut. So did drinking tea, wine, coffee and buttermilk.” The story needed a clear disclaimer regarding the limits of this type of research.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There is no disease-mongering.

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

Not Satisfactory

There do not appear to be any conflicts of interest. However, this story did not include independent sources.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Applicable

Given the context of the research, this is not relevant.

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

Not Applicable

Same comment as the “Compare Alternatives” section.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The news story did establish the novelty of the research with this quote:

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to systematically assess such a broad range of host and environmental factors in relation to gut microbiome and at such a large scale,” said Jingyuan Fu, a systems geneticist at the University of Groningen who worked with Zhernakova.

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

Satisfactory

Because it appears to have original statements from one of the researchers, the story does not appear to have relied solely on a news release.

 

Total Score: 3 of 7 Satisfactory

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