Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Nescafe coffee - "bursting with antioxidants"

Been reading Ben Goldacre's frabjous book "Bad Science". Excellent stuff - he goes after quacks, homeopaths, big pharma, Gillian McKeith et al in a big way, sparing no-one from his sharply critical eye, and taught me a lot about scientific procedure, and how to interpret science and health reporting in particular.

I was reminded of "Bad Science" driving home from work this morning, when I spotted a bus (N26 to Chingford Station, for the saddoes out there) with a large ad for Nescafe coffee on the side, dominated by the words "Bursting With Antioxidants".

Hmm. Clearly, as such prominence is given to their inclusion, antioxidants must be a prime selling point for Nescafe. But why? Ben Goldacre explains.

The antioxidant story is one of the most ubiquitous health claims of the nutritionists. Antioxidants mop up free radicals, so in theory, looking at metabolism flow charts in biochemistry textbooks, having more of them might be beneficial to health. High blood levels of antioxidants were associated, in the 1980s, with longer life. Fruit and vegetables have lots of antioxidants, and fruit and veg really are good for you. So it all made sense.

But when you do compare people taking antioxidant supplement tablets with people on placebo, there's no benefit; if anything, the antioxidant pills are harmful. Fruit and veg are still good for you, but as you can see, it looks as if it's complicated and it might not just be about the extra antioxidants. It's a surprising finding, but that's science all over: the results are often counterintuitive. And that's exactly why you do scientific research, to check your assumptions. Otherwise it wouldn't be called "science", it would be called "assuming", or "guessing", or "making it up as you go along".


Now, as Ben suggests, the science behind the benefits to health from antioxidants may not be entirely wrong - eating fruit and veg as part of a balanced diet is good for general health, and fruit and veg is rich in antioxidants - but there may be more going on than just "antioxidants are good for you". Antioxidant supplements don't appear to be enough for you to reap health benefits.

But you don't take that message away from that Nescafe ad, do you? No. "Bursting With Antioxidants". Fairly unambiguous, wouldn't you say? In fact, the Nescafe ads could be construed as saying "antioxidants are good for you, they help prevent disease, our coffee has lots of them, please buy our coffee".

Although cleverly enough - "Bursting With Antioxidants" is the entire message. They induce you to make the connection between antioxidants and health in your own mind, while avoiding making any claims for antioxidants themselves. These advertising people are good.

Well, not this Supertec. I'm off to buy some Carte Noir tomorrow - first checking the label to make sure it's not trying to poison me with those darned antioxidants.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

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