Comparing the Coverage: Caffeine Memory Pills vs Curing Diabetes with Chocolate and Wine
Coffee, chocolate and red wine must be the Holy Trinity of health-related news stories, with countless articles reporting the latest study to find supposed beneficial effects in consuming these “naughty” products. Perhaps we the public want to assuage the guilt associated with nibbling that late-night Dairy Milk, or maybe we just enjoy sticking two fingers up at a perceived “nanny state”, saying I told you so as we polish off the last of that open bottle of Merlot? Nevertheless, the stories keep on coming. Two recent, widely reported studies resulted in articles telling us of the positive effect of caffeine on short-term memory, and the more baffling claim that chocolate and red wine can protect against type 2 diabetes. The media furore around these papers gives a perfect opportunity to compare some of the dos and donts when reporting on scientific studies.
Caffeine and Memory Enhancement
The study, reported in Nature Neuroscience, reports an improvement in short-term memory and recall in participants in a randomized double-blind trial. Participants who were given a 200 mg caffeine pill (equivalent to two cups of coffee) immediately after studying images, were better able to recall them when tested 24 hours later, in comparison to those given a placebo. Caffeine pills taken just before the recall test, however, had no effect. The results of the study were generally very well-reported, with only the Mirror missing the caveat that the participants were all “caffeine-naïve”, meaning that regular coffee drinkers may not experience such a memory boost. The BBC coverage was particularly in depth and full of links to key information; an excellent template for those wishing to write science news stories.
Red Wine, Chocolate and Diabetes
This second study, from the Journal of Nutrition, examined the relationship between dietary intake of flavonoids – a group of antioxidants that are widely studied for beneficial health effects – and the appearance of biomarkers in the blood associated with insulin resistance, blood sugar regulation and inflammation. These processes are all implicated in controlling type 2 diabetes. The study showed that the participants (all female) who reported diets rich in sources of flavonoids, in particular the sub-groups of anthocyanins and flavones, exhibited responses suggestive of a beneficial role in prevention and management of type 2 diabetes of these compounds on a level similar to diet and BMI control.
As these compounds are found in red wine and chocolate, the media went wild. Sky News reported that “Chocolate And Red Wine ‘Can Beat Diabetes’”, while the Daily Mail went with “Chocolate and red wine can help stave off diabetes” – misleading headlines at best. At least both outlets included quotes from diabetes experts with warnings that the sugar in chocolate, and alcohol in red wine, are huge contributors to type 2 diabetes, and so the risks of consumption may outweigh the benefits. This kind of important, less-exciting information is often left to the end of the article, so the lesson is to read all the way through and don’t take headlines at face value. Take note, the Mirror and the Metro, although the latter did inform the reader that the study only applied to women in its headline. Some stories did mention that there are plentiful other healthier sources of these compounds – anthocyanins help make blueberries blue – but I suppose a headline of “Parsley and Tea Cures Diabetes” wouldn’t get as much attention. A far more sober and sensible report can be found in the New York Daily News.
Comparing the Coverage
The caffeine study, being a randomized double-blind trial, is an important scientific result that was reported, on the whole, in an effective and accurate manner. The diabetes study, however, is an example of the media over-egging the pudding and making outlandish statements about otherwise very useful scientific data. The NHS Behind the Headlines group described some of the coverage as “misleading and potentially harmful” in an excellent overview of the articles and the leaps of faith being made by headline writers. Our advice in interpreting stories like this is threefold: (i) read the whole article, not just the headline, (ii) go in search of the data yourself, and (iii) if it looks too good to be true, it probably is!
(i) D. Borota, E. Murray, G. Keceli, A. Chang, J. M. Watabe, M. Ly, J. P. Toscano and M. A. Yassa (2014). “Post-study caffeine administration enhances memory consolidation in humans”. Nature Neuroscience doi: 10.1038/nn.3623; (ii) A. Jennings, A. A. Welch, T. Spector, A. Macgregor and A. Cassidy (2014). “Intakes of Anthocyanins and Flavones Are Associated with Biomarkers of Insulin Resistance and Inflammation in Women”. The Journal of Nutrition doi: 10.3945/jn.113.184358