Catalyst lashed by Media Watch over cholesterol programs

Media Watch, Australia’s leading forum for media analysis and comment, has lambasted the journalism behind the ABC’s recent Catalyst programs on cholesterol describing them as ‘sensationalist and grossly unbalanced’.

Giving up on the search for truth was the title of an article about declining standards of journalism penned by Nick Cater, the Editor of the Weekend Australian, on 2 November. Cater wrote By abandoning the pursuit of truth, modern journalism appears to have fallen for the philosophical error that blights modern academe … The empirical route to knowledge through investigation, observation and reason is rarely respected. Instead, journalists have come to believe knowledge comes through revelation …  Cater was primarily talking about political journalism but his comments rang true in the light of the recent Catalyst programs on cholesterol.

Assessment by Media Watch

Fortunately, some journalists take their profession seriously. MediaWatch was scathing of the quality of the journalism behind the ABC’s Catalyst programs. For those who are unfamiliar with Media Watch, it is an ABC television program that analyses the media for Conflicts of interest, … deceit, misrepresentation, manipulation, plagiarism, abuse of power, technical lies and straight out fraud … Media Watch turns the spotlight onto those who literally ‘make the news’. We also keep an eye on those who try to manipulate the media: the PR consultants, spin-doctors, lobbyists and “news makers” who set the agenda’.

In commenting on the Catalyst programs, Media Watch presenter Paul Barry said Now, Media Watch is not going to take sides in this scientific debate. But looking at the journalism we’re almost as shocked as the doctors. Both episodes of Catalyst struck us as sensationalist and grossly unbalanced; and some of their so-called ‘experts’ had questionable qualifications.

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Catalyst: was the ABC enlisted to sell palm oil?

The cholesterol controversy featured on the ABC’s Catalyst program had nothing to do with science – it appears to have been designed to sell palm oil. Was the Catalyst team naive or complicit?

ABC television’s science program Catalyst recently ran two programs purporting to expose the myths about cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. In the first program the role of saturated fat in increasing risk was challenged and in the second the efficacy of statin medication for lowering coronary risk was put under the spotlight.

The programs provoked a storm of controversy, even within the ABC, because of their bias and potential to mislead. The ABC’s own health reporter Dr Norman Swan was irate, declaring on Radio National that “People will die as a result of the Catalyst program …”. Swan also conducted an excellent interview with Professor Peter Clifton on The Health Report as a means of countering the mischief caused by his colleagues at Catalyst. It’s well worth a listen.

Catalyst used to be a respected, evidence-based science program. How did it come to this?

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Coconut oil: health or hype?

Coconut oil is not usually recommended in healthy diets because of its high saturated fat content yet the media is awash with reports about the wonderful health benefits of coconut oil. Is this new science or marketing hype?

Among vegetable oils, coconut oil is one of the richest in saturated fat – about 86-87% of all its fatty acids are saturated. Given the latest advice to replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat it would appear that coconut oil is the last vegetable oil a credible nutritionist would recommend. Wouldn’t all that saturated fat just raise blood cholesterol and increase heart disease risk?

The case for coconut oil

Coconut oil advocates argue that not all saturated fat is the same and that the health effects of coconut oil are better than might be expected. It is true that saturated fat is not a single entity – it’s a collection of different saturated fatty acids, each with its own effect on blood lipids. Medium-chain length saturated fatty acids (6-10 carbons) appear to have little effect, whereas the longer-chain saturated fatty acids (12-16 carbons) all raise total blood cholesterol. Stearic acid, which has 18 carbons, is cholesterol neutral but continues to be treated with suspicion (see below).

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David Gillespie’s new book about vegetable oils is a load of codswallop

On the weekend a story by lawyer David Gillespie was published in several newspapers promoting his new book titled ‘Toxic Oil’. I’ve also tracked down an extract from his book on the internet. Mr Gillespie’s theme is that the consumption of vegetable oils, especially oils rich in omega 6, is killing us.There are so many errors and misleading statements in these short extracts that I can’t say I am looking forward to reading the full book. Here is a taste.

Gillespie says: … the amount of omega 6 oil we consume has exploded … our average polyunsaturated fat intake is currently … 11 per cent of our total calorie intake – more than double what it was in 1996.

This is just plain wrong. Intake of polyunsaturated fat in Australia has never been anywhere near as high as 11 percent of daily calories and rather than ‘exploding’ it has been declining for three decades.

The evidence on this issue is available to all in the two National Nutrition Surveys in 1983 and 1995, two CSIRO surveys and the 2007 Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey. The overall picture is one of a steady decline in polyunsaturated fat intake from 1983 until the present. Page 17 of the latest survey report shows children’s intake of polyunsaturated fats to be just 4 percent of total calorie intake across both genders and all age groups, about a third of that claimed by Mr Gillespie. Children’s intake of polyunsaturated fat is little different from the mean intake of men and women of 4.5 percent of daily calories observed in the last survey of adults in 1995.

Where did Mr Gillespie get his figures from?

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