Spam Journalism #68

By Jim McVeagh 31/01/2010


Spam Journalism: The spurious use of sensational headlines to add spice to an otherwise pointless article.

Thanks to Crusader Rabbit for pointing me to this lovely bit of medical spam at News.com.au:

Energy drinks’ ’serious’ heart risk

JUST one energy drink can cause “serious heart conditions”, a world-first study has found.

The report, according to Adelaide Now, has prompted Australian Medical Association state president Dr Andrew Lavender to warn people to limit their consumption of energy drinks to one a day until further urgent research into long-term consumption of the drinks is complete.

Firstly, the medical fraternity has been suggesting for years that people should limit their consumption to one energy drink a day, so this is hardly big deal news. As with alcohol and tobacco, people do what they want and the best doctors can hope for is that consumers make some sort of informed choice. Of course the words “informed choice” are a bit of a joke when applied to teenagers who think they are completely bulletproof. Young people continue to consume these drinks in dubious quantities with little regard to their health. Another study showing these drinks to be harmful is hardly going to make any inroads on energy drink consumption.

As usual, the author of the article cannot resist the temptation to sensationalise the opening line.

JUST one energy drink can cause “serious heart conditions”, a world-first study has found.

The actual conclusion of the study in the American Journal of Medicine is somewhat more sedate:

This study demonstrates that 1 hour after consumption of an energy drink, there are objective cardiovascular changes characterized by increase in blood pressure, increase in platelet aggregation, and impairment of endothelial function. Further research to determine the clinical implications of these findings is warranted.

In english, the conclusion is that a single drink stiffens your arteries and makes your blood a little stickier and more likely to clot. In the context of being drunk by teenagers with gloriously healthy arteries, it is highly unlikely that a single drink will cause anything worse than some flatulence. If you are a 90-year-old with lousy, clot-prone arteries, it may be enough to see you into the next world – but then what 90-year-old drinks energy drinks? Besides, a single cigarette causes more oxidative damage than an energy drink and is far more likely to be consumed by said 90-year-old.

If the “just one drink” of the opening line is changed to “just one drink a day“, then there is a little more evidence for this suggestion. But that is all it is – a suggestion. The actual study simply finds that a single energy drink caused oxidative stress (transient damage by free radicals). It, by no means, says anything about long term consumption. This is why further research is needed. You can’t make the conclusion that energy drinks are dangerous in the long term, based on short term information.

A good illustration of this is coffee. Coffee pushes up your blood pressure temporarily. As high blood pressure in the long term is bad for you, it was thought that coffee consumption is bad for the heart. We now know that expresso coffee is actually quite good for the heart and is protective against diabetes. Assumption in medicine is the mother of all stupid Mother Grundy legislation.

As an aside, coffee actually reduces oxidative stress, so direct comparison of the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee and an energy drink is a bit misleading. Coffee is demonstrable better for you than an energy drink and provides you with the equivalent energy “hit”. Note to teenagers: try coffee – it is more sociable and better for you (I fully expect this last piece of advice to be soundly ignored).

I have recently blogged about the dangerous effects of large amounts of the new “energy shots”. But even a single dose of one of these hideous things is not going to kill you unless you have an extremely dicey heart. My beef there is that the drink is being marketed as a supplement in order to bypass the sensible law limiting the caffeine content of energy drinks to a reasonable amount. Caffeine in overdose can be dangerous and these “shots” make overdose that much easier.

But a single can is not going to cause “serious heart conditions” in anyone except a frail and somewhat deranged nonagenarian.

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