Purple tomatoes won't beat cancer - Cancer Research UK
The story originated with the John Innes Centre. However, the UK's National Health Service (NHS) and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) both expressed strong reservations about the coverage of the story.
According to an article in NHS Choices, reporting the views of the NHS Knowledge Service: "These claims are not actually based on benefits seen in humans, but rather from a small-scale study of mice that were given an extract of genetically modified tomatoes."
The NHS Knowledge Service also noted: "The small sample sizes used mean the results may have occurred by chance. Also until the tomato is tested in humans we cannot be sure that it will offer the same benefits, or that there will not be any unexpected harms."
It's worth noting that the dubious claims re beating cancer were suggested by the John Innes Centre's own press release, ie they were not invented by the press even if they were reported uncritically. One of the JIC researchers even wrote an article for the Daily Mail headlined, "How my purple tomato could save your life".
While she may not have been responsible for the headline, far from seeking to rectify any of the hype or misinformation arising from their claims, the JIC clearly saw the coverage of the purple tomato story as an excellent means of promoting GM. A front page piece in a JIC house publication noted enthusiastically: "Our research has been reported very positively world wide... and has already had a societal impact in the UK, helping re-frame the GM debate." (Advances, John Innes Centre and Sainsbury Laboratory, Issue 12, Winter 2008-9)
Purple tomatoes won't beat cancer
Science Update blog
Cancer Research UK, October 27 2008
Today's cancer fruit story du jour involves tomatoes - specifically, special genetically modified purple tomatoes that "can beat cancer", according to the headlines.
In case you missed the reports, scientists have developed a new GM tomato that's packed full of antioxidants called anthocyanins, which, according to some stories, will protect people who eat them against cancer and other diseases.
If only life were that simple.
As we've said before, cancer is a complex disease that has lots of 'causes' - including the genes you inherit from your parents, the lifestyle you subsequently lead, and, sadly, a bit of bad luck too.
The problem with a lot of the coverage of the super-tomato story is that it misses out on this complexity, and suggests that one single lifestyle change - buying high-tech fruit and veg - can compensate for all of the above.
There's also a big - and in our opinion unwarranted - assumption in some of the coverage. And that's the simple equation that antioxidants = good.
There's a fair amount of evidence that some antioxidants in our foods can help prevent some kinds of cancer in some people. But the complexity of this evidence often gets translated in the media and in advertising to 'antioxidants prevent disease'. And that's not what the science says.
Here's an excellent, well-argued article* looking at the evidence for the role of antioxidants in health and disease. It's well worth a read before you pop to the shops to splash out on the latest health fad.
*The antioxidant myth: a medical fairy tale
by Lisa Melton
New Scientist, 5 August 2006
[concludes: "...supplements and extracts don't seem to work or may even be dangerous: the doses are too high, and produce too many free radicals. For now, the advice is simple. "...Don't start taking high-dose supplements or heavily fortified foods, until we know more."]