Supplements research reporting requires rethink

If you regularly read a major newspaper you could be forgiven for wondering how supplements like glucosamine, chondroitin, calcium and the herbs saw palmetto, echinacea and St. John's wort notch sales of about $2 billion annually. After all, according to the mainstream US media, none of these top-selling supplements deliver their heralded benefits.

Unless you read the trade press. A recent glucosamine/chondroitin study for osteoarthritis is a sterling example. The headline in The New York Times stated: "Supplements fail to stop arthritis pain, study says." Square that with a press release headline from the Council for Responsible Nutrition: "Study shows supplements relieve osteoarthritis pain."

So, which is it? Overall, the study found no real difference between benefits in any of the treatment cohorts in the mild-pain group — 60 per cent for placebo, 64 per cent glucosamine alone, 65 per cent for chondroitin, 67 per cent a combination of the two, and 70 per cent the pharmaceutical drug celecoxib (Celebrex).

What was significant, however, was a subgroup of 22 per cent of subjects with moderate to severe arthritis pain who experienced a significant 79 per cent benefit when taking the two supplements together, compared with 69 per cent on Celebrex and 54 per cent of the placebo group.

Daniel O. Clegg, MD, the study's principal author, noted in the New England Journal of Medicine that patients with severe pain "demonstrated that combination [supplement] therapy significantly decreased knee pain related to osteoarthritis."

This apparent inability of the media to explain study detail and present the full story is enough to rankle many an industry member. "It is unfair to claim that a herb is ineffective without mentioning that the studies were going into uncharted territory, not truly proving or disproving the current documented use of that herb for milder conditions," said Neil E Levin, nutrition education manager at Illinois-based NOW Foods.

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