DEAR READERS: Often, the letters I receive reflect the rise in diet and health advice found online and through social media. While I welcome the increase in helpful, evidence-based information, it has, unfortunately, been rivaled by skillfully marketed stuff best described as "wacky."
Reasonable consumers must therefore take on the chore of sorting the science-based information from the worthless -- and sometimes dangerous -- cyber junk. Here are some of my "rules of the road" when looking for answers online.
-- Seek objective, evidence-based confirmation for the safety and efficacy of any health-related product, treatment or dietary supplement. The accepted standard: competent, reliable scientific evidence published in a reputable, peer-review journal. Websites that end in ".edu" (educational institutions) and ".gov" (government resources) are reasonable places to start.
-- To support a concept, there should be at least two clinical studies (that is, studies using people) done by independent teams, ideally teams that have no association with the product being tested. It is entirely reasonable that a company with a financial interest in a product would fund research about it, but exercise caution if that company's research is the only support out there.
-- Clinical research using subjects with various states of disease can offer insight into mechanisms relating to that condition. Still, it cannot be assumed that the same effects will occur in otherwise healthy, well-nourished individuals (unless that study has also been done). For example, an individual can feel sluggish if they have iron-deficiency anemia, and replenishing their required iron will increase their energy. From this finding, however, you cannot claim that an individual who is not iron-deficient to begin with will experience similarly increased energy if taking the same supplement.
-- Studies should undergo peer review before publication. This is a process where experts in the field, selected by the journal, examine the details of the work. The journal editor has the last word on whether the study is accepted as-is, accepted after making specific revisions, or rejected. Reputable journals should also reveal any conflicts of interest relevant to the studies they publish -- for instance, whether the authors have any financial interest in the success of the product or technique.
-- It is also essential to check whether the study used the precise substance and dose as that found in the product.
-- Many products use customer testimonials; these are designed to be seductive and to sound convincing, as are social medial videos! Testimonials should not be the sole reason you decide to buy a product. Don't be persuaded when the only available "positive" information comes from entities vested in the product's sale.
-- The concept of "They couldn't say that if it wasn't true" is misleading. There are a variety of ways by which health products get promoted; regulatory agencies cannot be expected to keep up with the ever-changing frontier of false, illegal and questionable claims.
-- Finally, be aware that the ingredients in health products and supplements can interact with each other and with prescription medications. Be upfront about what you take with any health professional entrusted with your care.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to email@example.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.