Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Ode to ignorance in the LA Times

Wednesday's LA Times runs a nearly uncritical article-- advertisement would be closer to the truth -- about the wondrous claims of a peddler of something called "peanut milk."

"The drink, which does not contain milk, is made from peanuts, grains, herbs and spices. Fans say it strengthens patients with AIDS and cancer, reverses baldness, heals wounds faster, prevents colds, reduces symptoms of menopause and soothes psoriasis. It's also said to be a hangover cure. Some drink it at bedtime to help them sleep; others choose it as an alternative to caffeine."

There's not a shred of scientific evidence any of this is true, a fact briefly noted amid the raves of fans, who say they don't need no stinkin' science to know it works. The article quotes one scientist -- paid by the company to examine the ingredients -- who vaguely speculates it "may help alter the immune system."

"William Garcia Ganz, 58, who suffers from HIV and cancer, is another regular customer. One day, Chang noticed how sickly Ganz looked and began pushing him to drink peanut milk. Chang told Ganz that his older brother died from complications of AIDS in San Francisco in 1990.

Ganz, a musician and conductor, was unable to pay, so Chang gave him a free daily quart. During his exhausting chemotherapy, Ganz said, he lived solely on peanut milk, gaining weight, before his cancer went into remission.

"I don't know if it was a miracle, but this drink definitely tided me over during those awful months," he said."

Did the LA Times writer bother to verify if this guy really has AIDS? Did he talk to the guy's doctor? The article doesn't say. Judging from the absence of this information, probably not.

The ode to ignorance concludes with these three depressing paragraphs:

Justin Jackson, a regional grocery coordinator for Whole Foods, said if Chang could back up claims with test results, "peanut milk will really take off."

But fans say they don't need scientific confirmation.

"People don't know how aspirin works," said Reginald Legba, who credits the drink with helping to restore his hair. "I don't know how my car works, but when I get in and turn the key, I know it starts up every time. I also can't explain peanut milk. But every time you need it to work, it works."

Actually, people do know how aspirin works.

In a piece of research for which he was awarded both a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1982 and a knighthood, John Robert Vane, who was then employed by the Royal College of Surgeons in London, showed in 1971 that aspirin suppresses the production of prostaglandins and thromboxanes. This happens because cyclooxygenase, an enzyme that participates in the production of prostaglandins and thromboxanes, is irreversibly inhibited when aspirin acetylates it. This makes aspirin different from other NSAIDS (such as diclofenac and ibuprofen), which are reversible inhibitors.

Prostaglandins are local hormones (paracrine) produced in the body and have diverse effects in the body, including but not limited to transmission of pain information to the brain, modulation of the hypothalamic thermostat, and inflammation.

But why let the facts -- and the harm that glorification of unproven health rumors can do -- get in the way of a good story?

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