The Science Behind the Hype

Studies heralding the health benefits of our most sinful indulgences are a dime a dozen. But are they ever for real?

Red wine stops aging? Chocolate beats broccoli? Health â€news†is often more mindless hype than balanced science. How much more? To find out, we dug into the research behind some recent headlines. Launch the gallery here to start the debunking.

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  1. Chocolate's Better Than Broccoli - from Newsday (New York), October 30, 2006
  2. Are You Drinking Enough Coffee? Get Health Up to Speed - from The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.), October 9, 2006
  3. Housework Cuts Cancer - from the Weekend Australian, December 30, 2006
  4. Pizza Packs Anti-Cancer Punch - from the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.), July 21, 2003
  5. The Pub Is Better for You Than the Gym - from The Sun (U.K.), June 22, 2006
  6. Cheers! Scientists Say Red Wine Stops You Growing Old - from The Express (U.K.), November 2, 2006
  7. We Pay When We Shun the Sun - from The Kansas City Star (Missouri), June 6, 2006
  8. Video Games Fill Psychological Need - from CBC News (Canada), December 27, 2006
  9. Wrong Was Yoda: Anger Is Good - from The Toronto Star, November 27, 2005
The Pub Is Better for You Than the Gym
The Sun (U.K.), June 22, 2006 The Study Unpublished research, John Folts, University of Wisconsin; presented at the 2003 American Heart Association Annual Convention The Hyped Findings The posters and their health claims were banned decades ago, but researchers at the University of Wisconsin have concluded that Guinness may be good for you after all, or at least better than lager. After injecting eight dogs with either Guinness Extra Stout or Heineken, researcher John Folts found that the beloved "steak in a glass" was three times as effective as the lighter beer in preventing blood platelets from clotting, most likely, he says, because of its high concentration of antioxidant flavonoids. The subtler truth The medical effects of flavonoids in humans are unproved. What is known is that alcohol causes liver damage. In any case, flavonoids are also present in fruits and vegetables, an undoubtedly legitimate part of a healthy diet. The Bottom Line Beer is not a health elixir.
Are You Drinking Enough Coffee? Get Health Up to Speed
The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.), October 9, 2006 The Study "Coffee Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes," Journal of the American Medical Association, 2005 The Hyped Findings This Harvard analysis of 15 studies concluded that coffee can slash the risk of Type 2 diabetes by a third. The Subtler Truth Two mugs a day don't cut it. The full benefit requires six or seven cups (decaf works too). The Bottom Line Common sense rules: overdosing on caffeine isn't the best way to lower your diabetes risk.d70focus
Cheers! Scientists Say Red Wine Stops You Growing Old
The Express (U.K.), November 2, 2006 The Study "Resveratrol Improves Health and Survival of Mice on a High-Calorie Diet," Nature, 2006 The Hyped Findings The media anointed a new wonder drug when this Harvard Medical School study showed that resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, not only gave overweight mice the energy of their normal-size brethren, it extended their life span by about 20 percent. The Subtler Truth "We weren't looking for a red-wine connection," says researcher Joseph Baur. "It's just a coincidence that the molecule happened to be in red wine." Regardless, the study's resveratrol dosages were far greater than man or mouse could absorb from wine alone. By one estimate, a person would have to drink 750 bottles or more daily to get the equivalent amount of resveratrol administered to the mice. The Bottom Line Red wine doesn't have enough resveratrol to give humans any health benefit, nor do we know that its effects on mice would be seen in people.Jocelyn Durston
We Pay When We Shun the Sun
The Kansas City Star (Missouri), June 6, 2006 The Study "Sun Exposure and Mortality from Melanoma," Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2005 The Hyped Findings This study of more than 500 patients with melanoma-one of the most serious forms of skin cancer-found a positive correlation between sun exposure and survival rates. The idea is that vitamin D, produced by the skin when exposed to sunlight, helps keep disease in check. The Subtler Truth We haven't spent years arming ourselves with umbrellas and Kabuki-style face paint at the beach for nothing. Yes, a little unprotected sun exposure is probably a good idea, but this study isn't carte blanche to rub on the cocoa butter and begin roasting yourself. The Bottom Line Sunburns are still the primary cause of skin cancer. Avoid them.Bruce Thomson
Housework Cuts Cancer
Weekend Australian, December 30, 2006 The Study "Physical Activity and Breast Cancer Risk: The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition," Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, 2007 The Hyped Findings This study looked at 218,000 European women between the ages of 20 and 80 and found that increased household activity seemed to reduce the risk of breast cancer among middle-aged and older women. The Subtler Truth The researchers didn't unravel whether housework was any less effective than frequent, intense exercise like running. The reason? Even with 218,000 women in the study, too few exercised with enough vigor to tease a definitive result out of the statistics. The Bottom Line Don't trade in your Nikes for a Swiffer just yet. Exercise is exercise, and-guess what?-it's good for you.Carlos Paes
Video Games Fill Psychological Need
CBC News (Canada), December 27, 2006 The Study "The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach," Motivation and Emotion, 2006 The Hyped Findings In this study, researchers at the University of Rochester tried to determine how videogames affect players' feelings of well-being, self-esteem and satisfaction. To that end, they asked 200 college students to play Super Mario 64, Super Smash Brothers and other Nintendo 64 games and discovered that, at least in the short term, games could give players a sense of accomplishment and improve their feelings of "psychological wellness." The Subtler Truth Those good feelings, as the researchers wrote, are "the same basic motivators that other forms of entertainment, such as sports, contain." Plus, the games caused fatigue, or "reduced vitality." The study's summary: "It may be premature to conclude that computer gaming is negatively related to well-being"-in other words, we're not yet sure that they're bad. The Bottom Line Videogames may give a temporary self-esteem boost, but so do countless real-world activities.Quinn Norton
Wrong Was Yoda: Anger Is Good
The Toronto Star, November 27, 2005 The Study "Facial Expressions of Emotion Reveal Neuroendocrine and Cardiovascular Stress Responses," Biological Psychiatry, 2007 The Hyped Findings How would you feel if someone taunted you while you were trying to count backward from 6,233 by 13s? Yeah, you might get a little angry, and so did many of the 92 participants in this Carnegie Mellon University study. Others, though, responded to the mocking with fear rather than anger. By watching people's faces and measuring their cortisol levels, lead author Jennifer Lerner found that the subjects who expressed anger and frustration during the exercise released less of the stress hormone than those who were afraid of screwing up. The Subtler Truth The findings indicate that getting mad for a moment or two when the guy in the Lexus cuts you off won't spike stress levels as much as reacting with fear-and is thus healthier. But that isn't to say that being an angry person is the path to enlightenment. The Bottom Line It's OK to let it out every once in a while. But consistently being angry, which has been implicated in cardiovascular disease, is in no way a good thing.
Pizza Packs Anti-Cancer Punch
Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.), July 21, 2003 The Study "Does Pizza Protect against Cancer?" International Journal of Cancer, 2003 The Hyped Findings According to the study's lead author, Silvano Gallus of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmaceutical Research in Milan, Italy, the answer is a resounding "Si!"â€at least when it comes to cancers of the digestive tract. Gallus and his co-authors reviewed the case histories of 4,999 Italians who did not develop cancer and 3,315 who did, and concluded that eating pizza once a week is a "favorable indicator" in preventing esophageal, oral, colon and rectal cancer. The Subtler Truth Italian pizza, typically made with olive oil, fresh tomatoes and slices of pure mozzarella, is very different from the pepperoni-and-processed-cheese gut bombs Americans devour. Most likely, the research simply indicates that Italian pizza-eaters partake in a more traditional, healthier Mediterranean diet than non-eaters. The Bottom Line Gallus's understated take: "If you repeat the same study in the USA, probably you will obtain different results."
Chocolate's Better Than Broccoli
Newsday (New York), October 30, 2006 The Study "Chocolate and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review," Nutrition & Metabolism, 2006 The Hyped Findings Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that the flavonoids in chocolate, like similar compounds in red wine and grape juice, may protect the cardiovascular system. The Subtler Truth Most of the benefits the study found in chocolate-high-cocoa-content dark chocolate, by the way, not the sugary candy-aisle variety-were extrapolated from short-term trials. Long-term, randomized trials are needed to confirm the connection to a healthy heart. The Bottom Line Enjoy chocolate in moderation, but don't imagine that it's a health food the way green leafy veggies are.Neil Beckerman/Nicholas Eveleigh