Most people I know don’t need seven reasons to drink beer.
But when those reasons are “science-backed” that’s grounds for a WooHoo! from Homer Simpson, and at least a click from many readers.
You might guess these “7 Science-Backed Ways Beer is Good for Your Health” (subtitled, of course, “A beer a day may keep the doctor away”) would be found on the cover of a men’s or women’s magazine — the mother lodes of listicles. But no, this comes from the health section at NBC News.
This is disturbing for three reasons.
First, there’s no news here. Two, there’s not much science either. Three — although there’s the obligatory nod to “drink in moderation” — there’s no effort made to balance the story with the well-established harms of alcohol.
You’ll see in my listicle response to theirs, that this misleading article exemplifies several shortcomings we feel passionate about having health reporters avoid.
One: Most of the studies listed don’t support their health claims
The studies cited in support of beer lowering the risk of diabetes, improving heart health, enhancing bone strength, “boosting brain power,” and reducing inflammation are either based on observational studies — where cause and effect can not be established — or rodent studies.
To use either of these types of studies to offer sweeping health recommendations to the general public is irresponsible. Furthermore, all the studies cited — as is usually the case with alcohol studies — rely upon subjects self-reporting their consumption. This is notoriously unreliable and, therefore, severely limits any conclusions being made about the health benefits of beer.
Two: Conflicts of interest
At least two of the studies offered up as evidence were written by individuals with significant conflicts of interest. One is written by a PhD with a professorship in brewing endowed by Anheuser-Busch. The other, by a physician with previously disclosed support by “a ‘private donor’ to evaluate the health benefits of moderate beer intake.” These are not rare examples. Just last month we wrote about the increasing role of the alcohol industry in funding not just studies, but also journalism.
Three: Surrogate Markers
In making the case that beer “may make your heart healthier” the article cites an observational study showing moderate beer drinkers “had the slowest decline in high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or the so-called ‘good’ cholesterol, levels.” But is a “slower decline” in HDL cholesterol related in any meaningful way to heart health? We’ve written about many more well-established surrogate markers that were misleading or worse when used to guide health decisions. Likewise, the studies supporting beer as enhancing bone strength and boosting brain power used silicon levels as a surrogate marker.
I have no problems with news organizations using listicles; especially if what is listed is interesting and substantive. But to hook people with a widely consumed product (beer), claim it has 7 health benefits (with no mention of harms), and project credibility with the phrasing “science-backed” in the headline (despite a serious lack of science) is extremely misleading.
It’s useful to bear in mind that those things we put in our mouth or on our skin are particularly prone to outrageous health claims.
Dietary factors (including food, drink, and single ingredients) are notoriously difficult to study. Risks and confounding factors are rarely brought up (ie. in this case, no mention was made that alcohol can raise blood sugar and compromise insulin function). And conflicts of interest in the food industry are becoming increasingly common.
And I think it’s a lesson in skewed reporting to give just a passing plug for “drinking in moderation”; to omit any specific mention of the addictive potential of alcohol; and not make clear that binge, chronic, and excessive alcohol use all carry significant risks. Just a short list of those risks — according to the CDC — includes greater incidences of all of the following: fatal car accidents, gastrointestinal cancers, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, multiple psychiatric illnesses, high blood pressure, dementia, and susceptibility to a host of infectious diseases.
Finally, what do editors think readers will do with this information? Is it reasonable to ask reporters and editors to consider the potential consequences of publishing a sentence like this:
“But if you do keep a six-pack in the fridge, crack open a cold one and say ‘cheers’ to these health benefits!”
Seriously? That sentence leaves me with four questions: Is that news? Health advice? Is it responsible journalism? Is it even ethical?
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