Here’s how to spot Big Pharma’s spin on both supplements and drugs—and where you can get the truth.
You’ve seen the headlines: “Fish Oil Supplements Can Kill!” and “New Cancer-Fighting Wonder Drug!” These days, it seems the mainstream media is always screaming about the latest study “proving” that supplements are bad and drugs are good. But more often than not, the “research” behind these headlines has been funded, manipulated, and packaged by Big Pharma.
Here are some of industry’s (and the mainstream media’s) favorite ways to distort science:
- Publication bias. About half of all drug trials aren’t made publicly available, and positive findings are twice as likely to be published as negative findings for the same drug. So if a drug is harmful or doesn’t work, you’ll probably never hear about it. Conversely, if results are negative or can be made negative for supplements, which are thought to compete with drugs, you will certainly hear about it.
- “Seeding” trials. Should a study designed by the marketing department really be cited as scientific evidence? Big Pharma has been known to disguise marketing schemes as legitimate drugs trials (the most well-known example of this is Vioxx’s ADVANTAGE trial). The funding of negative supplement studies is often obscured, but we can guess where the money is coming from.
- Ghostwritten studies. Many “independent” studies are designed, conducted, and analyzed by drug companies—and then published under a physician’s name. In the case of supplements, researchers biased against supplements can readily be found, although the same names appear over and over again.
- “Perfect” patients. Study results can also be manipulated by choosing patients who you know in advance will demonstrate the outcome desired—for example, by giving patients with no nutrient deficiencies a multivitamin, and then concluding that supplements don’t make them healthier.
- Deceptively low doses. What’s an easy way to “prove” a dietary supplement has no impact on human health? Give it in such low doses that the result you want is guaranteed.
- Questionable methodologies. Do you remember what you ate for dinner, every night, for the past ten years? Probably not. Yet, many studies rely on “recall”—simply asking patients about as much as five years’ worth of health habits or to self-report whether or not they complied with experiment protocols. There studies are notoriously unreliable.
- Cherry-picking conclusions. A single study can lead to multiple—even conflicting—conclusions. Often, the media picks the most shocking conclusion, and ignores the rest. For example, when Mayor Bloomberg mandated flu shots for children under 5, he touted the vaccine’s 59% effectiveness rate. This is accurate—in a perfect, lab-controlled environment. The exact same document showed that in real-world settings, this rate tumbles to 24 to 36%.
- Skewed meta-analyses. Meta-analyses statistically combine the data of relevant individual studies. When done correctly, they can help researchers draw comprehensive conclusions from a large, diverse body of data. However, the integrity of a meta-analysis can easily be compromised: researchers may distort results by ignoring studies that don’t agree with their hypotheses, all while hiding behind the authoritative façade of meta-analysis.
- Tiny sample sizes. Many studies with just a few participants misleadingly claim “definitive” conclusions. But the smaller the participant pool, the less reliable the results (this is why proper meta-analyses can be so useful). Of course, many supplement studies are tiny because natural substances are not supposed to be patentable, which means that nobody will pay for a large study. This is why valid conclusions about supplements often employ the verb “may,” as in this supplement “may” improve heart health. Lab and animal studies may also provide further support for hypotheses drawn from small studies, but the FDA generally disregards them.
- Overly brief study periods. Researchers with an agenda can toy with a study’s length or timeframe. This is a great way to trim unwanted data, or avoid reporting undesirable health effects—for example, the hundreds of studies claiming GMOs are safe focus only on very short-term exposure; the effects of long-term exposure remains unstudied. Animal studies suggest that GMOs could have epigenetic effects that may even take generations to appear.
- Parroting press releases. In the age of instantaneous news, media outlets are eager to be the first to “get the scoop” on the latest, hottest study. In doing so, they usually simply regurgitate the study’s press release (which says what the drug company, or the researcher allied with a drug company, wants them to say) instead of spending time on independent analysis and research.
- Reliance on Big Pharma’s advertising dollars. As newspaper and other media lose advertising to the Internet and other places, they depend heavily on drug companies (in 2012, the pharmaceutical industry spent $90 million on print advertising). Publishing articles that protect Big Pharma’s interests may be rewarded with more profits.
- Hidden funders. University-published research is always more reliable, right? Think again: Big Food and Big Ag now fund many public and private universities. And, since the funding may be earmarked for, say, research positions, and not specific studies, rampant conflicts of interest can be easily concealed.
Armed with a critical eye, an informed reader like you can spot biases. But then how do you track down the real story?
- Find a reliable source, such as the Life Extension Foundation (LEF). If you see a media headline or study about dietary supplements that sounds fishy, check out LEF’s website: their scientists and physicians often publish detailed analysis of the studies behind the headlines. LEF is a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to finding new scientific methods to enhance and expand the healthy human life span. LEF develops research programs aimed at unlocking new anti-aging therapies and combating such age-related killers as heart disease, stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, and also plays a crucial role in funding truly independent medical research. Since 75% of clinical medical research is currently funded by private industry, this is of the utmost importance. To learn more about how LEF and ANH-USA work together to defend and educate the natural health community, please click here. ANH-USA is also working on a database of reliable web sites—places that you can trust for information about natural health—that we plan to add to our website in the near future.
- Go to the source. Read the studies themselves, and review their methods and conclusions. Remember, the data snippet that makes headlines is often just a small part of the story (like the New York Time’s flawed liver damage article). Not a scientist? Don’t worry—even the most technical studies have a short, readable abstract.
- Look at the larger body of evidence. Media outlets aren’t interested in publicizing the obvious, which is why they’ll jump on studies that seem to buck the conventional wisdom. In reality, just one study isn’t usually enough to overthrow scientific consensus. Be sure to look at similar studies and well-structured meta-analyses testing the same hypothesis.
- Ask: “Who paid for this?” When Big Business has a financial stake in the outcome, they work hard to create “a false and parallel science.” Look at the study’s funders to see who’s pulling the researchers’ strings (if funders aren’t listed, then you can guess what they’re trying to hide), and find studies funded by private organizations or the researchers themselves.
Over the years, we’ve seen our fair share of junk science. Here are some of our “favorite” (read: most outrageous) headlines, and the flawed studies behind them:
- “Red Meat Causes Heart Disease!” A 2013 study claimed that the amino acid L-carnitine, found in red meat, supplements, and sports supplements, increases the risk of heart disease. The twist? The sample size was only six humans (in addition to some rats). Meanwhile, a much larger meta-analysis published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings reached the exact opposite conclusion—that L-carnitine reduces the risk of heart disease! Which one do you think was headlined by the major media?
- “Organic Food Isn’t Healthier Than Conventional!” This meta-analysis had it all: it trumpeted just one conclusion—that organic foods don’t have higher nutritional content, completely ignoring the fact that they have 30% less pesticide residue; omitted vital variables (e.g., that organics don’t contain GMOs, or that the nutritional content of food depends on the soil on which it is grown); and excluded crucial studies that proved organics are more nutritious (which the study authors claimed was “accidental”).
- “Egg Yolk is Nearly As Dangerous as Smoking!” For this recall study, participants were asked how many egg yolks they ate a week, over a number of years (unless you’re vegan, this might be a pretty difficult metric to recall). Furthermore, the study authors had a history of financial support from Big Pharma.
- “Raw Milk Cannot be Considered Safe, Under Any Circumstances!” The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is often guilty of scientific bias: in 2012, they claimed the rate of outbreaks from unpasteurized milk and dairy was 150 times greater than those linked to pasteurized milk and dairy. However, this study neglected the source of the milk studied–there’s a world of difference between raw milk from a CAFO and raw milk from a local farm. It also conveniently picked a timeframe that ended one year before a deadly e. coli outbreak caused by pasteurized cheese could skew their results.
- “Fish Oil Causes Cancer, and Does Nothing for Your Heart!” Fish oil supplements are the favored scapegoat of Big Pharma and the mainstream media, perhaps because drug companies have several horses in the race including patented, prescription-only fish oil “drugs.” A 2010 study fed seniors margarine—which is full of heart-damaging trans fats—with a little fish oil added, and concluded that fish oil does nothing for the heart! In 2013, a highly-publicized study claimed fish oil supplements cause cancer, without ascertaining the quality or source of the fish oil supplements used, the study participants’ dietary habits, or showing a casual link between cancer and fish oil supplementation.Legitimate questions have been raised about possible toxicity from rancid fish oil, so do select a high quality product and, as Dr. Jonathan Wright, MD, suggests, it is best to take a mixed tocopherol (complete vitamin E) supplement with the fish oil to protect against any rancidity.
- “Calcium Supplements Cause Heart Attacks!” In 2010, the mainstream media cried wolf on calcium supplementation, citing a study claiming that it raises heart attack risk by about 30%. Study participants were given calcium alone, and not crucial co-factors like magnesium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and especially vitamin K2. We have pointed out for years that calcium without its co-factors poses risks to the heart. Meanwhile the World Health Organization recommended adding calcium to world water supplies, a terrible idea.
- “Case Closed—Don’t Waste Your Money on Dietary Supplements!” In December 2013, the AMA-controlled Annals of Internal Medicine published an opinion piece definitively claiming that supplements were, at best, totally useless. The mainstream media—misrepresenting the editorial as fact—gobbled it up. Meanwhile, the three studies that “supported” the opinion piece used absurdly low supplement doses; featured bargain-basement, Big Pharma-produced multivitamins; and failed to address the many factors of supplementation (e.g., how it works in tandem with a healthy lifestyle). One study that got ignored showed people who took multivitamins without statins experienced a 34% reduction of cardiovascular risk!
Thanks to the mainstream media’s and government’s cozy, crony capitalist relationship with Pharma and the lack of integrity in their “reporting,” it’s more crucial than ever that consumers like you conduct your own research, and come to your own conclusions in making the best health decisions for yourself and your family.