Misleading Food Studies

Just about every day, there is a new news article in every major newspaper’s health section, about the relative health benefit of some food substance or beverage. While these articles are interesting, they tend to lack scientific merit.

It’s hard to say how this has become generally acceptable. I certainly couldn’t tell you why; I can only guess at it. One likely reason is that reporters lack scientific training and discipline, and therefore are unable to qualify studies themselves, but have to rely on what someone else says. After all, most of them studied meda, not science.

In case you think I am exaggerating, I will make my point using only today’s health headlines. At the top of my news feed I find the following statement: “Higher coffee consumption associated with lower risk of death.”

So our basic message for today is “drink more coffee, or you will die sooner;” or perhaps “a pot of coffee a day keeps the undertaker at bay.”

While this makes all us coffee drinkers feel warm and fuzzy, coffee by itself is not a cure for anything in particular. I would say the main health benefit of coffee is to others around us. If we are going to associate it with longer life spans, let’s not be coy: it prevents cardiac arrest in those who attempt to speak with us first thing in the morning. If not for that first cup of coffee, that attempt to talk to us could have been deadly.

Joking aside, let’s take a look at the scientific premise of today’s coffee study. Roughly 20,000 people were surveyed as to their food and coffee habits. After 10 years, 337 of the total participants had passed away due to various reasons.

Of the 337 people who passed away, cause of death was not factored in. So these people could have died due to disease, infection, car accident, old age, violent crime etc.

Based on the old surveys these 337 people had filled out, their coffee consumption was analyzed and tabulated. Cups of coffee consumed was somehow extrapolated as a baseline to longer life.

While they make their calculations and tabulations sound impressive, and they certainly went through a lot of numbers. The only thing that this study proves is that scientific discipline is no longer taught or practiced at the university where the study was done. Neither is it taught or practiced by the Media.

For the study to mean anything, or to have any value other than as an interesting statistic, it would have to prove that lack of coffee consumption was a factor in death. The study did not search for this evidence.

You see, in order to be scientific, the very first thing you have to do is to look for ways to disprove your own studies and conclusions. You have to leave absolutely no question as to whether there may be another source or factor influencing your outcome.

Statistical analysis is useful, but it will only take you so far. What’s wrong with the coffee study is that we can do a statistical analysis of many other factors, and reach different conclusions.

For example, we could have looked at the shoe-size of the participants, and done a mathematical analysis. We would then come out with a number for “likelihood of death based on shoe size.”

Likewise, we could have looked at any other dietary factor and made a similar conclusion, based on any other food item that was consumed by this group:

  • How many slices of bread did they consume on average?
  • How many potatoes per week?
  • How many carrots?
  • How many hamburgers?

Or we could have analyzed how many movies they saw. Or how many hours of TV they watched.

Each of these questions would produce a statistical response that could then be “correlated.”

None of the questions, however, would prove that those items were the cause of either good health, or death. And that is exactly what is wrong with this last study.

It is almost comical that a major university lent its name and credence to the study and that it is making international headlines. Yes, I am sure the numbers they ran were correct. But, as stated, we could run those numbers based on shoe size and get a statistical result. It would be mathematically sound, and you wouldn’t be able to argue with the figures. You still would not be able to claim that shoe size had anything to do with health or longer life.

For scientific studies to mean anything, they need to show more than a casual relationship, and and all other factors need to be ruled out.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love coffee, but i’m not under the impression that I am taking it for good health. I drink it because I like the taste, and because the caffeine in it wakes me up and makes me a friendlier person in the morning. Coffee itself is a poor nutrient relative to other foods and beverages. If you are looking to fix or cure nutritional deficiencies, it’s not going to happen by drinking more coffee. And I know for a fact that every doctor, nutritionist, and health professional would agree with that statement.

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