Well, that was embarrassing, wasn’t it? The prestigious Harvard teaching facility Brigham and Women’s Hospital had to apologize for its study suggesting a potential cancer risk from consuming the artificial sweetener aspartame.
In fact, BWH even admitted that their research on this risk was “weak”. Ooops.
Unfortunately, Brigham & Women’s Media Relations office had already sent out a news release titled “The Truth Isn’t Sweet When It Comes to Artificial Sweeteners.” This is the kind of cheesy news release title, by the way, that is used because it virtually guarantees media pickup by grabbing the attention of reporters and their editors. Then the media repeats the cheesy headline over and over until the rest of us see it so often that we believe it to be true.
As reported by Robert Bazell of NBC News in his post called “Harvard Hospital Admits It Promoted Weak Science on Aspartame “:
“The (study’s) conclusion was so weak that the researchers had to submit it to six journals before they found a seventh, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, that would publish it.
“Few reporters read that journal. If it was not for the frightening headline, no one would have known about this study.
“After being asked some hard questions – and just before the report was to be released – the hospital changed its tune, issuing a statement that said:
“Upon review of the findings, the consensus of our scientific leaders is that the data is weak, and that BWH Media Relations was premature in the promotion of this work. We apologize for the time you have invested in this story.”
Well, you just know that the folks who make soft drinks loaded with aspartame were going to be all over this kind of admission.
And sure enough, in between high-fiving each other at this unexpected stroke of luck, the industry umbrella group known as the American Beverage Association (ABA) issued the following statement on the very same day that the BWH apology came out:
“The (BWH study) authors said it best: their study has ‘limited application’ and their findings may be ‘due entirely to chance.’ We agree.
“The fact is: Aspartame, which is an ingredient found in many beverages as well as thousands of foods, has been deemed safe for decades by the world’s leading toxicologists, as well as the National Cancer Institute and other regulatory agencies and public health experts around the world. Let’s stick to the facts.”
No matter what your personal opinion of this artificial sweetener might be (and no doubt whatever you believe has been duly influenced by what you’ve learned in the media anyway), Bazell’s report tends to side with the ABA:
“Aspartame is one of the most studied food additives ever – and with good reason. It is an ingredient in some 6,000 products, but its main use is to sweeten diet sodas. Americans drink an astounding amount of diet soda, the equivalent of 43 billion 12-ounce cans a year.
“Most animal and human studies have given aspartame a clean bill of health. But in 2005 an Italian study showed a potential danger in rats that led epidemiologist Dr. Eva Schernhammer and her team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to look through the records of more than 77,000 women and 47,000 men in their nurses and health professional’s studies. They concluded that those who drink a daily diet soda sweetened with aspartame could have an increased risk of leukemia, lymphoma or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“But there are caveats: The results differed between women and men, and there also seemed to be a risk among people who drank mostly sugared soda. No one claimed that it meant more than further study was needed.
Yet when lead author Schernhammer was asked whether the new research proves that aspartame is dangerous, she answered emphatically:
“No, it does not.”
You might ask why BWH Media Relations office staff were the ones to eat crow and apologize for publicizing research results that probably shouldn’t have seen the light of day in the first place. You might also wonder why Dr. Schernhammer et al kept submitting an admittedly “weak” scientific paper over and over to journals who kept turning it down for publication. You would think that the average brainiac might suspect problems with poor quality research methodology.
We won’t even ask why the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition accepted for publication a self-described weak study that six other journals had already refused to publish.
The study’s conclusion read:
“Although our findings preserve the possibility of a detrimental effect of a constituent of diet soda, such as aspartame, on select cancers, the inconsistent sex effects and occurrence of an apparent cancer risk in individuals who consume regular soda do not permit the ruling out of chance as an explanation.”
Read those last few words one more time, essentially saying that pure chance itself might be responsible for select cancers. But each of the study authors listed on this paper gets bonus points on their respective CVs for getting another journal article published.
I guess the thinking might go like this: even if you believe you have a useless study, you might as well keep shopping it around until some editor, somewhere, somehow finally bites. Yes. There’s embarrassment aplenty in this story.
Not all science deserves publicity, adds Bazell. Some research is not done well, he explains. Some comes to equivocal conclusions and serves solely to alert other researchers of the need for further study. The BWH research about a potential cancer from aspartame falls squarely in that second category.
As I’ve reminded readers here before:
“For every PhD, there is an equal and opposite PhD.”
Consider the studies that this week may proclaim: “Coffee causes cancer!” But just wait: next week, yet another study will insist: “Coffee prevents cancer!”
When weak studies do get media attention, they can often increase the confusion and anger that many people feel about science in general – and the study of possible risks and benefits of our diet, in particular.
As cardiologist Dr. Steven Nissen, chair of the Cleveland Clinic’s cardiovascular medicine department, told NBC News (with more charity than some might be able to muster):
“Promoting a study that its own authors agree is not definite, not conclusive and not useful for the public is not in the best interests of public health.”