For this week’s assignment we had to fact check a statement in the media. I am particularly interested in how science is reported. I decided to search for a health article. One of the latest findings presented in the news has to do with a study that relates the consumption of sweetened beverages with the risk of hear attacks.
The article that caught my attention is What not to eat: Cut out sugary sodas and red meat & reduce heart disease, new studies say. the article emphasizes how bad beverages such as sodas are and refers to the research study finding by stating that “A 12-ounce sugar-sweetened beverage each day increases a man’s risk of heart disease by 20 percent”.
I am always interested to know how researchers would conclude such a specific statement so I tried to check this in the original article. Fortunately, the publication is cited in the article, so that is easy to find. We are pointed to the abstract of the research publication. Although the abstract summarizes the results, the closest statement to the one we are fact checking is: “Participants in the top quartile of sugar-sweetened beverage intake had a 20% higher relative risk of CHD (myocardial infarction) than those in the bottom quartile”. This is not enough to draw the conclusion that one beverage per day increases heart disease risk by 20%, since we don’t know what the top and bottom quartile mean. At this point I decided to check the content of the paper. Again, we are fortunate that the research paper is available for free. The paper states that the lower quartile of people consuming represents people who never consumed sugar sweetened beverages and the top quartile represents people who consumed sugar sweetened beverages 3.7 to 9 times a week with a median of 6.5. This gives us a confirmation of the amount of sugar-sweetened amount of drinks in the statement. However, the most important fact is that never in the paper is causation mentioned, and never is it stated that consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks leads to an increase in heart attacks. The study merely presents a correlation, and it should be clear that correlation does not imply causation. That is nto the case of how the news article presents the results though. A correlation between the amount of sugar-sweetened drinks consumed and heart disease does not mean that consuming these drinks will lead to a higher number of hear attacks.
Furthermore, while skimming through the research article other limitations come up: “We found no evidence to suggest that overall consumption of artificially sweetened beverages was associated with CHD risk or changes in biomarkers, however non-carbonated artificially sweetened beverages were associated with increased risk in an analysis of continuous intake”. This can be a serious limitation of whether artificially-sweetened drinks also increase the risk of hear disease, which is what the study claims.
Other statements in the study are: “Our study has some limitations. First, dietary intakes were measured with some error.
Second, participants in our study may be dissimilar to those living in the general population. For example, intake of sugar-sweetened beverages was much lower in our study (mean = 0.36 servings / day) than in US adults (mean > 1 serving / day).”. These are all limitations that should affect how we think about this study and what its limitations are. These might not make it to the article presented in the news, especially once we try to reduce the study to a couple of lines.
On addition, is it our duty to also look for similar articles that report relations between consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and hear disease increase? Is the study presented in the article one of many studies on this issue? Does it have findings already suspected by other studies, how is it different and why should we pay attention to this particular study? These are questions that are not approached in the news report and that might affect how we perceive the study. Should this kind of information also go into fact checking? And exactly where should fact checking stop?