There is no shortage of advertising and news articles about the health benefits of everything from ginger to green tea, but often claims are based on preliminary or incomplete research findings. Here are four questions to ask yourself when you’re reading about the latest health craze. The answers will help you navigate ‘superfood’ claims so that you can make educated decisions about whether or not you really need to eat, say, sea kelp.
Have these claims been tested in humans?
A recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan showed that sulforaphane—a chemical found in broccoli—destroyed breast cancer cells. This sounds promising but before you rush to the vegetable stand, take note: This study was performed in mice, not humans. Mice and rats are frequently used to test initial ideas and determine whether those ideas are promising enough to examine in humans. This is a necessary step in the research process but results should not be interpreted as “eating broccoli cures breast cancer.”
How many people were in the study?
The larger the sample size, or number of people, in a study the more reliable the results. For example, in a study of over 18,000 Chinese men, those who drank green tea were half as likely to develop stomach cancer. The large number of men included in the research experiment increases the likelihood that the results of the study—tea antioxidants reduce cancer risk—are applicable to the general population.
Who funded this research?
When reading about research on websites unaffiliated with a traditional publication, make sure that there are sources to support health claims. If an experiment is funded by a company that has a financial interest in the success of a study, then be wary of the results. Also, many websites appear to offer legitimate medical information about food and health when in fact they are just marketing and selling a product. This is especially common with trendy foods and supplements such as acai berry.
Have other studies gotten the same results?
Often one study may show that a food reduces cancer risk while another will find conflicting results. Without a PhD it can be difficult and time-consuming to sift through and make sense of all the research concerning a food product such as red wine. If you’re considering adjusting your diet or are interested in learning more about particular foods and whether they really reduce cancer risk, a great resource is the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Labeling Guide. The Food Labeling Guide summarizes all known research about different foods and supplements.