Last month, Newsweek ran an article proclaiming "Antioxidants Fall from Grace!" The piece led with a quote from a British chemist named David Bradley. In the quote, David questioned whether taking antioxidants is "good for your health."
He even suggested that taking antioxidants might increase your risk for cancer!
Okaaaay...I'll tackle that absurd statement in a moment.
But first, let's imagine that you're a writer for Newsweek. Whose advice do you seek if you're putting together a serious exposé on antioxidants? Whose work do you quote to make your argument stronger?
David Bradley, of course! Ah, yes. He fits the bill perfectly. Well, that's how the Newsweek reporter felt anyway.
Now let's look at his qualifications. David Bradley is a blogger, science writer, and world-traveler. According to his web site:
I've worked in science communication for more than 20 years. After reading chemistry at university, I worked and travelled in the USA and then took on a role as a technical editor at the Royal Society of Chemistry. Then, following an extended trip to Australia, I returned and began contributing as a freelance to New Scientist and various trade magazines. My portfolio has not stopped growing since.
Okay, so David Bradley majored in Chemistry in college and now he's a bona fide Newsweek consultant! (Great choice, Newsweek. You picked a real authority to quote this time!) By the way, you can also find a free chemistry dictionary on David's blog as well as other helpful information such David's picks for the "Top 5 Tech E-Books of 2010."
Seriously, I've got nothing against David Bradley. He seems have a great enthusiasm for science. He's just not a nutritional expert.
(Nor should David appear as the lead expert quoted in a major mainstream magazine's critique of antioxidants. But maybe that's just me being picky.)
But wait. It gets worse...
Newsweek reporter's lazy research
The quote the Newsweek reporter used in her lead was pulled (word for word) off a blog from David's web site. I seriously doubt she spoke to David personally...or even emailed him for that matter. (David probably would have discouraged the hack from making such a bad journalistic decision!) Instead, the Newsweek reporter just cruised the net looking for anyone with half a résumé who would talk badly about antioxidants.
But that's not all.
The second big problem with the Newsweek piece is that it targets flawed and obscure studies in order to make the case against antioxidants. In fact, one of the studies is so obscure that I wondered where the reporter found it.
Then, I realized...
Yep, it came straight from David Bradley's four-paragraph blog on antioxidants from 10-27-10. In it, Bradley cites a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. This study used severely diabetic rats with kidney cancer as test subjects. After the scientists fed quercetin and ferulic acid to the rats, their kidney cancer got worse.
Now, come on!
This is the big overwhelming proof that all antioxidants (including vitamins A, B, C, and E) are bad and have "fallen from grace"?! Not only is the study laughably obscure (using diabetic rats with kidney cancer, no less), the Newsweek writer ONLY came across it because she read David Bradley's silly blog.
Plus, we're talking about quercetin and ferulic acid. Yes, they're great. But they're probably not sitting in the front row of your vitamin cabinet, are they?
And it gets worse still...
More flaws with Newsweek hack job...
In 2008, the Cochrane Collaboration conducted a meta-analysis that reviewed 67 studies involving 400,000 patients who took antioxidants. After their review, these scientists concluded "we found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary prevention, [and] Vitamin A, beta-carotene, and vitamin E may increase mortality."
This is the main study the Newsweek reporter used to make the case against antioxidants. I'll admit, it's a better choice than the diabetic rat study. These studies involved actual humans...and lots of them.
But the studies used mainly synthetic vitamins at very low dosages. Plus, most of the vitamin E studies involved didn't use complete vitamin E. As you'll recall, vitamin E consists of eight different molecules. And your body needs all eight! But if you only take one fraction...and that fraction is synthetic...it's not gonna do you much good.
The same nutritional law applies to beta-carotene. It doesn't make any sense to test beta-carotene on its own. You don't find beta-carotene alone in nature without alpha-carotene, gamma-carotene and the other carotenoids. They work as a team in your body!
So poor results don't surprise (or worry) me when the study uses just alpha-tocopherol or just beta-carotene. It sort of like saying a three-wheeled racecar didn't win the Indy 500. Nah, really!? Did anyone think it would? Of course, not...it was designed to fail.
Newsweek reporter cherry picks bad studies
I think we've established that the Newsweek reporter isn't so great at research. She picked some lame studies to cite. And she quotes a light-weight British blogger. But, remember. I'm a skeptic at heart.
I think our friendly Newsweek reporter knew exactly what she was doing. In fact, she knew enough to cherry pick the bad studies...especially that 2008 Cochrane report. Plus, she committed a very savvy sin of omission...
She didn't tell you about a major report published last year that reexamined all the Cochrane Collaboration's data. Yes, in 2010 a group of scientists looked back over all 67 studies. And guess what they found?
You got it.
Beta-carotene, vitamin E, and vitamin A did NOT increase overall mortality.
Nice of the Newsweek reporter to omit that piece of information, wasn't it?
Slow and steady wins the race
The Newsweek reporter also failed to tell you about thousands (probably tens of thousands) of studies showing these nutrients do benefit your health. She also couldn't find one bad thing to say about vitamin C, the king of antioxidants.
But here's one thing I'll give her...antioxidants are powerful nutrients. You are wise to do your research before beginning a new vitamin regimen. I also recommend working with a qualified medical advisor who focuses on nutrition. And, as always, keep reading the Guide to Good Health.