By Kevin Begos
Is there truth behind the hype about herbal treatments?
By Kevin Begos
For the millions of viewers who click on the Yahoo! homepage each day, one recently featured story boasted apparently major news. Titled “7 Reasons to Drink Green Tea,” it reported that the “deceptively delicate brew” will “cut your cancer risk” since “study after study has found that people who regularly drink green tea reduce their risk of breast, stomach, esophagus, colon, and/or prostate cancer.”
Whew! No wonder the avalanche of comments posted about the story tended to echo this one: “just made the switch b/c of all the great news on green tea … should be made more available to kids in schools as well, instead of the soda machines.”
Another person was sold, too: “VERY GOOD INFORMATION. ESPECIALLY ABOUT THE CANCER RISKS, BENIFITS [sic] GREEN TEA HELPS WITH. THANKS FOR THE INFO.”
The real news isn’t quite as sensational.
In fact, scientific studies of green tea haven’t proven that it reduces a person’s risk of cancer, says oncologist Debu Tripathy, the former director of the Komen/University of Texas Southwestern Breast Cancer Research Program in Dallas, and the president and chief executive officer of Physicians’ Education Resource, a company that provides continuing medical education for doctors. “So far, the clinical trials of green tea have not shown a very strong effect,” he says.
Any doctor knows that there’s no magic bullet to cure cancer. But that’s not what patients want to hear, and the makers of herbal supplements have found a huge market bottling hope in the form of saw palmetto, mangosteen, green tea and other products. In many cases, the medical benefits are exaggerated, and herbal supplements can even contribute to adverse reactions for some patients undergoing chemotherapy. In 2002, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a new crackdown against supplements with misleading claims. U.S. marshals have seized box loads of such products—some were advertised on cable channels such as Discovery, Comedy Central and Bravo—and charged the sellers with making fraudulent claims.
However, the tantalizing assertions in the Yahoo! article and other hyperbolic news about herbal supplements aren’t exactly unfounded. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), “the antioxidants found in tea—called catechins—may selectively inhibit the growth of cancer.” In fact, laboratory studies have shown promising results for green tea. One recently reported lab study, published March 1 in Clinical Cancer Research, suggests that a compound in green tea could help slow the spread of prostate cancer. Nonetheless, the NCI states in its “Tea and Cancer Prevention” fact sheet that overall, “human studies have proven more contradictory, perhaps due to such factors as variances in diet, environments, and populations.”