A glass of wine a day…does not keep the doctor away

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Wine glasses with different types of wine in them.

One day, science shows that coffee is good for you, but the next day, science finds that coffee is bad for you. One day, chocolate is bad for you, and the next, it is good for you. Studies show that red meat is both good and bad for you. As we read the latest news, science seems to contradict itself every day. With all this confusion about science and nutrition how do we know which foods are good or bad for our health? A recent study has tried to simplify the answer for the link between alcohol and health.

One of the reasons for apparent contradictions in science is due to the nature of science. There is no answer sheet to check for the right answer and no textbook to see if your conclusion is correct. Science is completely new, and each study adds a small piece to our understanding of the world. Because each study is limited in what it investigates, occasionally the conclusions drawn from different studies may be at odds with one another. However, once enough science has been conducted, it is possible to “average out” all the information on a particular topic and come to a consensus. This consensus is often a “yes” or “no” answer to a single question, such as “Does chocolate lower blood pressure?” or “Does coffee increase the risk for cancer?” (Hint: the answers are yes, chocolate lowers blood pressure and no, coffee does not increase the risk for cancer!). One way to do this is by performing what is called a metanalysis.

Metanalyses investigate the research on a specific topic (such as a possible link between processed meats and cancer) and combine it to come to a single conclusion. A recent metanalysis studied the link between alcohol consumption and disease by combining information from 592 studies that investigated the risks and benefits of  alcohol.

The most important finding from the study is that even a single standard drink of alcohol per day increases a person’s risk of health problems, such as cancer, stroke, injuries, and infections. Furthermore, two drinks per day lead to a 7% higher risk of dying from alcohol-related health problems, and five drinks per day lead to a 37% higher risk of dying. Because of the study’s design, it is unclear how long these drinking levels must be sustained to increase the risk for health problems; future research should study this question. Although the metanalysis found that moderate consumption of alcohol (1-3 standard drinks daily) reduces the risk of ischemic heart disease and diabetes moderate alcohol consumption still increases the risk of developing over twenty other health complications and diseases. This increased risk explains the finding in this study that alcohol is the 7th leading risk factor for deaths globally, with alcohol involved in 2.2% of female deaths and 6.8% of male deaths in 2016. The disparity in male vs. female deaths may be due to discrepancies in drinking rates, since in many areas of the world, men drink more alcohol than women.

This metanalysis emphasizes the importance of re-evaluating current public health recommendations. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men, and it also suggests that people who do not drink should not start drinking. However, the metanalysis discussed above suggests that we should reconsider these guidelines and avoid recommending alcohol consumption to anyone. This recommendation is unlikely to be a popular opinion, due to the number of people who enjoy consuming alcohol on a regular basis as well as the alcoholic beverage companies who prefer to cite science showing that moderate drinking is healthy. However, the sheer number of deaths caused by alcohol consumption (2.8 million deaths globally in 2016) highlights the importance of a thorough review of alcohol recommendations. Until then, we should individually consider how much and how frequently we consume alcohol, since alcohol does not keep the doctor away.

Peer-edited by Priya Stepp

When Science Meats Fiction

In Vitro Meat (IVM), or lab-cultured meat, aims to transform the livestock industry into a more sustainable and ethical enterprise, but it will have to get through a few hurdles first. IVM involves taking a small sample of animal tissue to grow it into consumable meat, which is no simple task. It is being developed as an alternative to the livestock industry, which is a significant contributor of greenhouse gasses, uses up to 30% of arable land, and has been subject to criticism for animal rights violations. Despite the increased awareness of these issues, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) predicts that meat consumption will increase 73% by 2050, particularly in developing countries where median incomes are rising. This presents a niche market for IVM, which scientists are now trying to scale up while reducing costs. The real challenge will be to effectively communicate this technology and actively engage with ethical issues and consumer fears.

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In vitro meat (IVM) could one day be a reality. This image, while fake, shows what could be in future meat departments.

IVM is reminiscent of stem cell research and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which were promising research fields that sparked intense debate in the early 2000s. Religious concerns resulted in the restriction of federal funding to stem cell research during the Bush administration; distrust of the safety of GMOs led to heavy regulation and banning of these crops in certain countries. We are only now gaining momentum in these fields. For instance, in 2013 (nearly 12 years after the funding ban), stem cell transplants were shown to regrow heart tissue in heart attack patients. Golden rice, a genetically fortified rice produced to combat vitamin A deficiency, was developed in 2005, though it is still not commercially available. Perhaps if scientists had more effectively communicated stem cell science or been more transparent about transgenic plants, more progress would have been made today without controversy looming. The same case can be made for a technique like IVM. 

Image Credit: Amala John

Lab-grown meat may be the sustainable alternative to the livestock industry. 

Effective communication is easier said than done. I recently witnessed a conversation that mirrors the discourse we often have about novel technologies. On our way to lunch, my cousin mentioned the first lab-grown burger presented to the public in 2013 and cited the benefits of such a technology, to which my aunt responded with disgust at how unnatural IVM was. As they went back and forth about the environmental impacts of the factory farming system or the moral implications of culturing meat, the conversation got pretty heated. I stayed out of the argument, which seemed to only breed misunderstanding and frustration, but decided to research IVM later to bring up in a more neutral manner.
With any new technology, backlash is inevitable. Today, however, the emergence of new technologies and their integration into society far exceeds the rate of their communication to the public. The controversies around stem cells and GMOs reveal just how important effective communication is early on to the acceptance of a technology. Beyond their work in the lab, scientists should think about their role as communicators, especially when the steaks are so high.

Read more about In Vitro Meat here or here.

Read about some of the critiques and challenges of IVM here.

Peer edited by Tyler Farnsworth. 

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