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Why are so many Facebook friends sharing preposterous stories from Natural News?

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realemon_250pxHave you heard that eating whole lemons prevents cancer? Or that bathing in Himalayan salt rids the body of harmful toxins? That eating hijiki seaweed can delay hair graying? If you have a few Facebook friends, you’ve probably encountered some of these claims. The website Natural News —which seems like a parody but is unfortunately quite serious—published these preposterous stories, and many others just as silly, last week alone.

Hokum like this is best ignored, but hundreds of thousands of Americans fail to do so. Natural News has achieved astonishing traction on social media, garnering Facebook shares in the high five and low six figures. These numbers should trouble you—Natural News has an uncanny ability to move unsophisticated readers from harmless dietary balderdash to medical quackery to anti-government zealotry.

Let’s start by deconstructing the claim that eating whole lemons staves off cancer. The author cites two medical journal articles. She badly mischaracterizes the first, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 1999. The study described the isolation of three compounds, known as coumarins, from lemon peel. Coumarins exhibit tumor-suppressing properties in a laboratory dish, but that does not mean that eating lemon peel prevents cancer. Even if the oral ingestion of coumarins were convincingly shown to fight cancer in a laboratory animal, we still wouldn’t know how much lemon peel would be required for a human to experience the same effects or whether you could tolerate the dose.

junk-science_200pxThe second study the author cites is an enormous overreach. No one enjoys biostatistics, but bear with me and you’ll be better prepared to identify weak studies in the future. The study, published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer in 2000, purported to show a correlation between consumption of lemon peel and diminished cancer risk. The authors surveyed 242 skin cancer survivors and 228 controls about their citrus consumption habits, but the questionnaire wasn’t externally validated and has some screwy definitions. (Eating citrus peel “often,” for example, is defined as “50-75 percent of the time.” What does that mean?) The authors did not adequately control for race or skin tone, which is an important variable in skin cancer studies. The sample size was much too small. Only 163 of the 470 study participants reported eating citrus peel, and just 28 of them admitted to eating citrus peel often. That’s not enough to prove that eating lemon peel prevents skin cancer. In addition, the statistical correlation is very weak, close to undetectable. Had one more person with cancer reported eating citrus peel, the relationship would likely have disappeared. In fairness, the study authors acknowledged the small sample size and the need for more substantial follow-ups, but everyone knows how these correlational studies are reported in the media. This is why you should look for patterns in scientific literature rather than relying on individual studies.

Anytime someone tells you that eating something prevents cancer, your BS detector should start a-clanging. Natural News is full of these beauties.

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5 responses

  1. The diatribe you went through about Gardisil is not complete and it needs to be updated. One, the strains and what they are and two, the Markowitz CDC Study of girls vaccinated and addressing the limits on the vaccines efficacy.

    Gardisil came out with a new vaccines with an additional five strains of HPV. Why the first vaccine with just 16 and 18? Because, they were the most widely common HPV associated with cervical cancer. So, previously Gardisil had 70% protection and currently has 90%. Another competitor is revered, which is more than 96% effective against the two most common, which are 16 and 18 and more than 50% effective against any HPV strain.

    About testing girls and women. Women are most likely already infected. Teens are active sexually if you want to know the reality of it. 1 in 4 women contract HPV in America. So, As far as the Markowitz CDC study where you cited it claiming girls who received the vaccine had higher HPV and infection rates is not true. The older women tested did, because many of the randomized trials of older women had already contracted HPV strains. As far as all of the studies comprehensively gathered as peer review, with Markowitz as one of the names listed is at this link, here:

    To summarize, it shows how getting HPV early at ages 11 and 12 for both males (because it can cause throat or anal cancer as well as prevention to spread it to others) and females, reveals a high efficacy rate through years of longitudinal studies following vaccinated teens to adulthood compared to unvaccinated.

    Emphasizing getting the vaccine administered to girls and boys young at puberty, just before their time of high risk to contract HPV is the best time, because its shown to be over 98% effective in preventing HPV. As people get older and you haven’t had the vaccine, you’re the 1 in 4 who has HPV.

    Does this mean that vaccinated women shouldn’t get pap smears? No, but it does mean your risk of getting HPV related cervical cancer has been significantly lowered.

    1. Laura, I already did the update that you suggested, comparing original Gardasil to the new (not yet available) “Gardasil 9,” though I didn’t post a link here. Here it is:

      It includes links to both Winer (2006) and Markowitz (2013) [which, thankfully, is no longer paywalled).

      You are very mistaken in your belief that either version of Gardasil is “98% effective in preventing HPV.” Here are the actual numbers.

      Original Gardasil (the quadrivalent HPV vaccine) is designed to protect against two of approximately 23 known high-risk HPV types. That corresponds to:

      18% of the high-risk HPV infections detected in Winer (2006)
      19% of high-risk HPV infections between 2003 & 2006 in CDC/Markowitz (2013)
      13% of high-risk HPV infections between 2007 & 2010 in CDC/Markowitz (2013)

      Gardasil 9 is (which is still unavailable) is designed to protect against 7 high-risk HPV types. That corresponds to:

      36% of the high-risk HPV infections in Winer (2006)
      44% of high-risk HPV infections between 2003 & 2006 in CDC/Markowitz (2013)
      35% of high-risk HPV infections between 2007 & 2010 in CDC/Markowitz (2013)

      None of those numbers are anywhere near the 70%, 90%, and 98% numbers that you cite.

      You’re also mistaken about Markowitz. They did not test any “older women.” They reported only new infections, their test was limited to teens, and — although they didn’t mention it in the title or abstract — they found that HPV rates were higher among vaccinated girls than unvaccinated girls.

      The slightly-good news was that most of the difference was accounted for by strains which were not considered high-risk, but even when only high-risk strains were considered the vaccinated girls had slightly higher infection rates.

      Look at Markowitz’s table 3. Look at the lines labeled “Vaccinated” and compare them with the lines labeled “Unvaccinated.”

      Do you see it? Markowitz found that the overall prevalence of HPV among vaccinated sexually-active teens was 50.0%, but among unvaccinated sexually-active teens it was only 38.6%.

      Note: that unsettling result does not necessarily mean that Gardasil vaccination increases cancer risk; see:–ltr_to_joann1.html

      But it certainly does mean that both the current quadrivalent Gardasil and the upcoming Gardasil 9 are much, much less effective at reducing cancer risk than Merck claims and you believe. Let me explain why.

      I have no idea where your “98%” number comes from, but I do know where the “70%” claim (by Merck & by various authors, including Markowitz) comes from. It depends on very dubious assumptions.

      The study from which the 70% number comes is de Sanjose, et al (2010). They simply looked for the presence or absence of various HPV types in preserved tissue samples from cervical cancer patients. They found that 71% of those patients were infected with HPV type 16 and/or 18.

      But that does not mean HPV types 16 & 18 caused all those cancers! For one thing, many of those patients were also infected with other high-risk types of HPV, which certainly caused at least some of those cancer cases. Also, 15% of the cancer patients had no detectable HPV infection at all, which suggests that in a significant percentage of the patients with HPV infections the cancers might also have had other causes.

      So it is statistically incorrect to conclude from de Sanjose (2010) that 70% of cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV types 16 & 18.

      There is evidence that HPV types 16, 18 & 45 may have higher oncogenicity than some other high-risk types, because in women infected with those HPV strains cervical cancer seems to develop at a somewhat younger age. A higher oncogenicity would contribute to the high percentage of current cervical cancer patients infected by those strains of HPV. But that almost certainly is not the only reason. The changing relative prevalences of different HPV types may be a more important cause.

      Cervical cancer is typically diagnosed decades after the infection. So the prevalence of various high-risk HPV types decades ago is what largely determines the percentages of today’s cancer cases caused by those types. The (different) prevalence of high-risk HPV types today is what will determine the percentages of different types that cause cervical cancer in the future. If types 16 & 18 were relatively more prevalent compared to other high HPV risk types thirty years ago than they are today, then Merck’s Gardasil is like the Maginot Line: a defense devised by foolish generals, which would have been effective in the previous war, but not in the next.

      The studies were done with the original, quadrivalent Gardisil. Hopefully, the results will be better for Gardasil 9. But the fact remains that vaccination offers only weak protection against infection with high-risk strains of HPV.

      Additionally, original Gardasil has its own risks, which Gardasil 9 presumably shares:

      The number of “adverse outcomes” (deaths and injuries) is small compared to the number of patients, but it could eventually be dwarfed by the number of future cancer deaths, if some patients mistakenly believe that vaccination means they needn’t get regular exams & pap smears.

      Neither orginal Gardasil nor Gardasil 9 reliably protect women from cervical cancer. They will not eradicate that disease, nor even come close. The best we can hope for is a modest reduction in the number of cases, and even that is uncertain.

      Over-hyping the potential of these vaccines to combat cervical cancer could end up killing more patients than the vaccines save.

  2. Interesting read…seems Natural News is better at marketing than at science…and it’s kind of disturbing to see how blind people become when they read something they want to hear. Not sure what I find more disturbing: Natural News’s rather offensive claims (I think it’s offensive to people affected by cancer to claim this lemon miracle as fact) or people’s susceptibility to nonsense…

  3. My apologies in advance for this rather rambling post. You touched a couple of different “hot buttons” for me, and I’m going to respond to them without bothering to try to really tie them together.

    You are certainly correct that is not trustworthy. It’s a content aggregator that publishes & links to both good material and nutty stuff. There’s no “quality control” at Natural News. The site is a mixture of truth and fiction.

    Here’s an example:
    “Homeschooling Banned in California as State Turns Parents Into Criminals for Teaching Their Own Children”

    That NaturalNews story was just plain wrong (out-of-date when published). It was probably based on this article from the San Francisco Chronicle, or some similar source:

    However, the date on the SF Chronicle story was March 7, 2008. It was accurate when it ran. The date shown on the NaturalNews story is September 23, 2008. It was long wrong by then. Between the two stories (about 1.5 months before Sept. 23), the SF Chronicle ran this story:
    “Homeschooling OK, appeals court says”

    A mixture of truth and fiction, like that which NaturalNews carries, is arguably worse than a complete fairy tale, because mixing in some truth makes it much harder to avoid being deceived. Mixtures of fact and fiction are confusing. They make it harder to tell the truth from the lies. That’s why Satan is recorded in Scripture as quoting Scripture. “Falsehood is never so false as when it is very nearly true,” noted Chesterton.

    Here’s an example of a NaturalNews newsletter, by Dr. Robert Rowen:

    Dr. Rowen is a quack who is notorious enough to be mentioned in this article on QuackWatch, in the section entitled Shady Leaders:

    It turns out that the more shocking and outrageous the claims someone makes, the more likely many people are to want to read them. That’s why the tabloids have pictures of two-headed freaks on the covers. It’s also why quacks like Robert Rowen and Russell Blaylock write outrageous things like this when trying to sell their newsletters.

    Rowen begins by railing against “the most corrupt medical system money can buy” and “the Big Pharma-owned FDA.” But that’s nonsense. “Big Pharma” doesn’t control or “own” the FDA, and the pharmaceutical companies, by and large, are more trustworthy than quacks like Rowen & Blaylock.

    In truth, the pharmaceutical companies are pretty much like most other corporations: amoral. They have good people and bad. They do some absolutely wonderful work, but when ethics and morality get in the way of profit, ethics sometimes end up as road kill.

    For example, that’s the reason that the word “conception” is being redefined, as implantation, rather than fertilization: so that abortifacients like IUDs and the “morning after pill” can be called “contraceptives,” even though they kill newly conceived embryos rather than actually preventing conception. It’s all about selling the product: “contraceptives” are easier to sell than “abortifacients.”

    Vaccines are another example. Vaccines like MMR, DTaP & Hep-B are essential for children. But not all vaccines are beneficial. Gardasil (for HPV) and Zostavax (the shingles vaccine), both from Merck, are lousy. They’re both very expensive, short-lasting, and minimally effective, with side-effects that may well exceed their touted benefits. They make lots of money for Merck, but it’s not clear that they have any net benefit for people’s health.

    Women need to know the truth about Gardasil:

    1. Gardasil only protects against 2 of the 19 (so far) known high-risk strains of HPV,

    2. The vast majority of high-risk HPV infections are with strains that Gardasil does not protect against, and

    3. Sexually active women are at risk of cervical & other cancers, and still need regular PAP smears, regardless of whether they’ve had Gardasil.

    HPV types 16, 18, 26, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 53, 56, 58, 59, 66, 67, 68, 73, and 82 have all been identified as high-risk oncogenic strains, and Gardasil only protects against types 16 & 18. But in a U. Washington study (Winer 2006) those two types accounted for just 18% of high-risk infections.

    Worse, a recent CDC study (Markowitz 2013) found that Gardasil-vaccinated girls had slightly HIGHER rates of infection with high-risk HPV strains than did unvaccinated girls!

    Part of the problem is exaggeration of the vaccine’s benefits by the manufacturer (Merck), but a big part is wildly inaccurate reporting by the press. For example, on 6/20/2013, on “CBS This Morning,” I heard Holly Phillips, MD, report that Gardasil can “eradicate” (her word) the disease, and that people who get the vaccine will never get HPV-caused cancers. That kind of misinformation may well be causing some women to behave less responsibly, or skip PAP smears, which could cost some of them their lives.

    BTW, Markowitz 2013 (J Infect Dis., doi:10.1093/infdis/jit192) is now paywalled, but I have a copy. Let me know if you want it.

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