So many times you will hear in the news about a new health product that is going to cure cancer and all manner of diseases. When I hear them, I usually just switch the channel. “If it sounds too good to be true…..”, well, you know the rest.

So how do you determine what is quackery and what is not? The best way, is to determine if the claim is backed up by legitimate scientific studies. Did it follow the scientific method?

To follow the scientific method, the research must be based on a hypothesis, a testing of the hypothesis, a statistical evaluation of the data, and a reasonable conclusion based on the data.

A scientific study may be an animal or a human study. Human studies generally fall under one of three categories:

  1. Observational Studies: These studies involve analyzing existing data to determine how often a disease occurs and how many people in the population are affected
  2. Case-Control Studies: These studies involve comparing one group of people to another. For example, studying 1000 senior citizens that exercise regularly, with 1000 that do not, to determine “how exercise affect memory”.  
  3. Clinical Trials: These studies are generally done to determine the direct effect of eating a certain food or nutrient. Ideally, these trials are randomized. That means the people in the study are not hand-picked, but selected by chance. Strong clinical studies are often single-blind or double-blind experiments. In a single-blind experiment, the persons being tested does not know which treatment they are getting, only the experimenter knows. For example, some may get a pill to treat a disease while others get a placebo pill that looks like the real thing. None of the groups know which one they got. In a double-blind experiment, neither the subjects being tested nor the experimenter knows which treatment is given until the end of the experiment.

OK, so the first step in evaluating a claim is to test its scientific validity. That is, determining whether or not the study was done the right way. But, as you will agree with me, most people in the general public will not feel confident that they know enough to make this judgment. So, alternately here are three questions you can ask:

  1. Who paid for the study? If you follow the money, you may see that the research was paid for or sponsored by an interest group or the very company manufacturing the product. If this is what you find, then the information is likely biased.   
  2. Is the study peer-reviewed? Peer-reviewed means that the study was evaluated by other experts in the field before it was published. If the study was not peer-reviewed, it is just as good as one person’s opinion.  
  3. Where was it published? Credible and solid scientific studies are published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Websites ending with  “.gov” and “.edu” can also provide you with credible information. But, you should more cautious about information on websites ending with “.com”

Overall, the big idea is that there is a lot of information out there. Don’t just accept anything you hear or see in the media. Make sure you take the time to mentally evaluate the claim.

Reference: Thompson, J. L., Manore, M. M.  & Vaughan, L. A. (2017). The Science of Nutrition (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson Education.

Courtney Simons
Courtney Simons is a food science professor. He holds a BS degree in food science and a Ph.D. in cereal science from North Dakota State University.
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