On Blueberries

Gretchen Becker Health Guide
  • The popular science press was bursting today with a story saying that blueberries reduce the risk of heart disease.

    The story stemmed from a University of Michigan presentation at the Experimental Biology convention in New Orleans on April 19. It has not been published.

    In this study, the researchers fed rats that were highly susceptible to being overweight blueberry-enriched powder that constituted 2% of their weight. They found that the rats fed the blueberry powder had less abdominal fat, lower triglyceride levels, lower cholesterol levels, and improved fasting glucose levels and insulin sensitivity, especially when also on a low-fat diet. Rodents are especially sensitive to high-fat diets.

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    The researchers ascribed the beneficial effects to high levels of phytochemicals in the blueberries, especially anthocyanins.

    This is interesting. However, what the researchers, whose research was supported by the US Highbush Blueberry Council, didn't point out is that anthocyanins aren't limited to blueberries. They are found in most red, blue, and purple foods, especially berries, including billberry, cherry, raspberry, strawberry, black currant, elderberry, cranberry, purple grapes, and red wine.

    Unfortunately, this story is typical of the industry-supported research that is broadcast as if only the food in question has the beneficial effect. An analogous story was research supported by the company that makes Mars Bars showing that cocoa reduced heart disease rates. Another study using Hershey's dark chocolate bars also claimed beneficial effects and was announced with misleading headlines like "Chocolate prevents heart disease." In fact, the study showed only that dark chocolate reduced levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation that has been connected to heart disease.

    Studies like this are then trumpeted by the companies that make the products in question, picked up by a science news media eager for news, and broadcast around the world. I'm sure consumption of the food or drink in question skyrockets for a few weeks, until some other food is shown to have beneficial health effects.

    For us as consumers, the problem is that headlines like "Chocolate prevents heart disease" tend to stick in our brains and influence our eating choices for a long time. This is exactly what the industry flaks who put out such stories want.

    If you can, whenever you see a news story like this, try to find out who funded the research. If you can find out and it's been supported by some food industry, take the story with a humongous grain of salt (unless you're on a low-salt diet). Don't be manipulated by food-industry propaganda.


Published On: April 20, 2009