An alternative to the Kyoto Protocol? Photo: Breville USA / Flickr
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Study finds broccoli-sprout juice helps the body flush carcinogens (but don't call it a "detox")

New study suggests broccoli-sprout beverages help the body detoxify airborne pollutants, though it's not quite a "detox".

It’s hard to avoid health fads. It took Google just ten minutes since I read this study in Cancer Research Prevention to begin bombarding me with adverts. ‘7lbs in 7 days Juice Diets‎’ and ‘Coreflush colon cleanses’ are just some of the regimes proclaiming salvation from ill health, but nothing gets pushed as much as the detox. According to The Internet, the detox diet might as well have descended from Heaven as it's so effective at solving everything from bad breath to erectile dysfunction.

This latest obsession with internal body cleansing has flourished over the last couple of decades. The diet industry, of which detox plays an important role, is rapidly expanding. It’s already worth tens of billions of dollars, despite coming under severe criticism from leading scientists. Author and blogger Dr. Ben Goldacre – famous for calling out examples of ‘bad science’ – once described detox as “meaningless, symbolic, gimmicky short-lived health gestures with a built-in expiry date”. Yet this doesn’t stop the media touting every new superfood or miracle-diet as a panacea for all our ills. News outlets pounce at the first sign of a study purporting to have identified a medical breakthrough, often misrepresenting the author’s original findings in order to grab flashy headlines. (Take a quick look at the A-Z of things the Daily Mail thinks will cause and cure cancer – broccoli has 14 entries).

The trick is not to get carried away by the hype. Look at this latest study. Researchers in the US and China have found broccoli-sprout juice appears to "remove" airborne pollutants from the body, but this isn't a "detox". Unlike the fleeting 'cleanse-your-body-in-5 days' type programmes (which unsurprisingly peak after the Christmas holidays), this research looked at the effects of longer-term consumption of broccoli-sprout juice on removing three specific carcinogens.

In the randomised-study of 291 participants from a highly polluted township in rural China, the team analysed daily urine samples from two groups: the first group was given a daily drink of broccoli-sprout juice, but the others were given a placebo beverage. The multi-institutional collaboration included researchers from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Qidong Liver Cancer Institute. The team were looking at how the levels of three carcinogens – benzene, acrolein, and crotonaldehyde – changed in participants’ urine over the three-month period.

The substances involved have been linked to increased risk of cardiopulmonary disease, arguably the second biggest killer in China. As the township in the study is located in the heavily-polluted Yangtze River Delta region (a tiny area of eastern China responsible for a monstrous 15 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions) there is a huge need to combat the dangers of air pollution.

Did the concoction work? On the face of it, yes. The authors found that juice-drinkers excreted more pollutants than the control group. In particular, they noted:

Rapid and sustained, statistically significant (p ≤ 0.01) increases in the levels of excretion of the glutathione-derived conjugates of benzene (61 per cent), acrolein (23 per cent), but not crotonaldehyde were found in those receiving broccoli sprout beverage compared with placebo.”

So far so good. Juice-drinkers weed out larger quantities of two of the three substances under consideration - but this still doesn’t mean broccoli-sprout juice “prevents against lung and heart disease”, as it might have you believe. 

The big question here – does drinking broccoli-sprout juice decrease your risk of disease by causing you to excrete higher levels of carcinogens? – needs lots more research. Without analysing numerous studies alongside one another (and taking sample size into account) you can’t really draw conclusions. A single study of 300 people is evidently not enough to justify claims of preventing lung cancer.

In an article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, health-policy expert Dr John Ioannidis famously argued that a large amount of research is highly misleading. By comparing publications of “highly cited original clinical research studies” with subsequent papers where a larger sample size was used, he found a third of effectiveness claims to be either contradicted or highly exaggerated. Taking a single study to be gospel truth is foolish.

Let's go back to the broccoli. Research emerges linking this juice with enhanced excretion of pollutants; other studies have already linked those same pollutants to cancer. Extrapolating those statements to claim detoxing with broccoli-sprout juice will prevent disease is understandable, and perhaps even inevitable, but undeniably wrong. We mustn't connect dots to form patterns that aren't there.

This highlights a real problem with the supposed 'science' behind detoxing and other miracle-cures: subtly inviting us to form our own conclusions from the selective evidence they present, which, without comparative studies, is effectively meaningless. In detox diets this manifests itself by ignoring the body's own capabilities for disposing of toxins. Andrew Wadge, former Chief Scientist at the Food Standards Agency, expressed his scepticism that we need extra help cleansing out our insides:

There's a lot of nonsense talked about 'detoxing' and most people seem to forget that we are born with a built-in detox mechanism. It's called the liver. So my advice would be to ditch the detox diets and supplements and buy yourself something nice with the money you've saved.”

However, this doesn't mean we should automatically write off such supplements as useless. Given how few of us get our 5-a-day, you could argue that any initiatives promoting increased consumption of vegetables could only be a good thing. Co-author of the broccoli-juice paper Dr. Thomas Kensler tentatively suggested their findings could be used on a personal level, alongside state measures to improve quality of air.

This study points to a frugal, simple and safe means that can be taken by individuals to possibly reduce some of the long-term health risks associated with air pollution.

This while government leaders and policy makers define and implement more effective regulatory policies to improve air quality.”

Though Kensler might be over-estimating the benefits here, the price tag alone will probably put you off purchasing it. The juice – which weighs in at £16 a glass if you’re interested – may well end hitting supermarket shelves soon, but don’t hold your breath that it’ll save us from the dangers of air pollution. There are plenty of measure to solve that problem already.

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.