The media are today's food and health information gatekeepers. Media determine, for the most part, what consumers hear, read and believe about food and health. Along with reporting on research comes responsibility to ensure that the findings are fairly represented and that consumers know how this information may affect their behavior and lives.
Use this cheat sheet when reviewing a study and remember that the source should be credible and referenced and it is usually best to get the opinion of a mainstream medical/health professional organization.
What: Research that adds to scientist's knowledge of how things work. For example, how calcium is absorbed by the body. It investigates biochemical substances or biological processes - or when conducted in animals, explores reactions or physiological responses to a treatment.
Value: This research is able to establish how a treatment might work and provides the basis for developing hypotheses for further testing in humans.
What: Research that looks for associations in groups of people, such as the amount of calcium consumed and bone health. With this type of study, researchers do not control the variables, so that factors other than the one in question may be responsible for the results. Although the data can be adjusted to control for some variables, there may be others that confuse the results.
Value: These studies are useful for developing a hypothesis, but cannot show or disprove cause and effect relationships.
Clinical Trial - Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trials
What: This type is research is the experimental study of people under controlled conditions conducted either to determine whether the findings of basic research apply to humans or to confirm results from observational studies.
Study subjects are selected according to relevant characteristics and are then randomly assigned to either an experimental group or a control group. Under double-blind conditions, neither the subject nor the researcher knows who received what treatment. Researchers are able to ensure that variables, or additional factors are distributed equally among the group(s) and therefore could not lead to differences in the effect of a treatment.
For example, one group of test subjects is given calcium and the other group is given a "placebo," or fake treatment. After an established time period, the bone densities are measured or fractures counted to see whether the calcium had an effect.
Value: These studies are considered the "gold standard" and can be used to show cause and effect. This study design provides dependable findings that are free of bias introduced by either the subject or the researcher.