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There was a time when people had to depend on their family physician as their primary source of information on health matters. Newspapers and magazines now realize that there is a growing demand for articles on the latest breakthroughs in science and medicine. Not an issue goes by that the findings of yet another medical research team are reported. Heart disease and the many forms of cancer are the main targets.


With the advent of the internet, it has become easier for the public to get information about products that have been researched. The number of nutrition and health sites grows larger every day, and it is possible to have the press releases in your own home at the same time as they are appearing in the national newspapers. Many web sites even contain original articles or summaries of articles.

So in this time of information overload, how do you tell what is important and what is true? For the non-scientist this is often very difficult, because very often the results of one study contradict those of earlier studies. Who can you believe? Dr. X who is an internationally recognized expert working in a large well known hospital or Dr. Y who is a professor in an equally well known university?

As you read through newspaper and magazine reports or even the scientific articles themselves there are several things to keep in mind that can help you assess the importance and validity of the scientific results. The first question to ask is whether the research has been done with humans. These are called in vivo experiments. Long before clinical trials are carried out on humans much research has be done to isolate and identify active ingredients. Such work can be carried out in classic chemistry or food chemistry laboratories. So a headline such as "Blueberries are the newest weapon against cancer" may be attached to an article in which researchers are reporting that they have found that blueberries are very high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are believed to be beneficial in preventing cancer, and therefore the conclusion is drawn - usually by the author of the story and not the scientist who did the work - that cancer can be cured by eating blueberries. However, much research has to be carried out before that conclusion can be made.

A second thing to consider is how revolutionary are the findings being reported and are they supported by other studies. From time to time a new and radically different treatment or cure is discovered. But more often, one experiment builds on previous experiments. Spectacular findings are moreb elievable if they are based on a large body of information that has been obtained by more than one research team. It can be confusing trying to compare one study result to another because very often the procedure, protocols and products are different. The cholesterol lowering effects of fibre have become more understandable when it was realized that there are many different types of fibre, for example, soluble and insoluble fibre, and that the different types of fibre act differently in the bod.

A third criteria to use in evaluating reports of new scientific findings is where the results are being reported. Articles published in internationaljournals are the most reliable because they have undergone peer review before they are accepted for publication. Two and sometimes three independent scientists have read these articles and the authors have had to explain or justify their methods, results and conclusions. Research findings reported at scientific meetings are less well reviewed and are therefore less reliable. The popular press often attend scientific meetings and conferences to get the latest in scientific breakthroughs. Unfortunately the stories reported often overemphasize the potential of the findings while ignoring the caution not to extrapolate beyond the results reported.


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