“Super” broccoli for cancer?

Posted on December 23, 2011

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Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Dateline: 4 October 2011 // Posted by: Roisin Moore
SourceThe Sun, Fox News

Story: “Super broccoli to fight the big C”

Summary: Super broccoli, or Beneforte as it is marketed, is the latest in the super-foods domain that claim special properties which can cure cancer. The product which we are told in the article went on sale in Marks and Spencer’s from 4 October, is purportedly three times more efficient than normal strains of broccoli (“Beneforte contains three times the amount of the beneficial plant chemical glucoraphanin than normal strains of broccoli”).

Glucoraphanin is turned into sulphoraphane in the body and this nutrient is believed to stop the uncontrollable division of cells associated with early stages of cancer. Furthermore, the article tells us about studies “of broccoli-rich diets” which have reduced risks of prostate and bowel cancer as well as preventing heart attacks and strokes.

The article then finishes with a quote from Prof Richard Mithen, from the Institute of Food Research, which demonstrated and developed the broccoli, saying “Our research gives insight into broccoli’s role in promoting health.”

Why is this PseudoNews? Extraordinary claims must be backed up by extraordinary evidence. However, this news story has few scientific studies to back the claim up. While broccoli does have the chemical mentioned in the article, there are few if any studies which show an effect on cancer in humans, with even the studies mentioned on the IFR website mentioning only the effects normal strains of broccoli have on cancer and only show the presence of the nutrient.

Another important reason it can be seen as PseudoNews is the lack of evidence that is behind the product .The chemical properties in broccoli is the only thing that is shown in the study, the amount needed for it to effect cancer and the amount of effect is not shown.

“Eating this new broccoli is not going to counteract your bad habits,” said Glenys Jones, a nutritionist at Britain’s Medical Research Council. She doubted whether adding the nutrients in broccoli to more popular foods would work to improve people’s overall health.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? As mentioned, there is a lack of scientific evidence to support this claim. The claim that Beneforte fights cancer is based on assumptions which have not been verified by a scientific study. However, there are more elements than this which marks this subject as pseudoscientific. There are erroneous beliefs in this article relating to the importance of super broccoli in fighting cancer. The effect of Beneforte has not been determined to be more effective than normal broccoli towards cancer. On the website of the Institute of Food Research a list of sources to back up the theory. However, this information only shows the effects sulphoraphane has on cancer cells in a controlled environment outside the body. Furthermore the studies only show the evidence of effects from normal strains of broccoli.

There is also a lack of parsimony with the argument for “super-foods” that fight cancer, given the probability that patients who are fighting cancer are simultaneously receiving medical cancer treatment. In other words, attributing treatment efficacy to broccoli alone ignores the more likely impact of medical treatment in most, if not all, of these patients.

Both an exaggerated importance of a key figure and science by press conference are apparent with this issue. There are numerous occasions in which Professor Richard Mithen has been quoted from various press conferences about the Beneforte product and is the only scientific figure which has been shown in relation to the product. .

The moral of the story: Just about all foods are fine for you when taken in moderation. However, until further studies are done the claims for Beneforte’s effects on cancer are unfounded.

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