The ‘quality’ press has the capacity to churn out ‘bad press’ too, it seems

This week I was out and about and couldn’t help noticing the headline on one of the national newspapers here in the UK proclaiming ‘Ready meals increase cancer risk in women’. My interest was piqued, so I took a look.

The story reported on a study published this week in the journal Diabetes Care. This Swedish study looked at, among other things, the relationship between fasting blood sugar (glucose) levels and cancer risk in men and women over a 13-year period.

There was no apparent association in men, but in women, those with the highest levels of fasting glucose levels were at a 26 per cent increased risk of cancer compared to women with the lowest sugar levels. The forms of cancer that appeared to account for this increased risk were those of the pancreas, womb, and malignant melanoma. And as the study authors point out, this research supports previous studies which have found that elevated blood sugar levels are associated with increased cancer risk.

For a moment, let’s go back to the headline referring to ‘ready meals’. What, exactly, is the link between ready meals and blood sugar levels? Well, according to Nic Fleming, the journalist responsible for the piece, Eating large quantities of fatty foods can harm the body’s ability to break down glucose  leading to elevated blood sugar levels.

Hang on a moment, though, does common sense not dictate that the foods most likely to disrupt blood sugar are not fat, but foods that actually contain sugar? Foods with added sugar (biscuits, confectionary, sugary soft drinks and the like) are likely to pose problems here, as well as foods rich in starch: many starchy carbohydrates including bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals release sugar quite quickly and in considerable quantities into the bloodstream. This can obviously disrupt blood sugar levels in the bloodstream in the short term, but in the long term it will demand the body to secrete relatively elevated levels of the hormone insulin from the pancreas.

In time, the pancreas may ‘exhaust’ and/or insulin’s activity in the body becomes blunted (known as ‘insulin resistance’), which raises the risk of elevated blood sugar levels as well as the spectre of Type 2 diabetes.

Bearing this very basic biochemistry in mind, one wonders why Nic Fleming managed to plump on fat as the problem here, rather than certain fast sugar-released (high glycaemic index) carbs? Well, one thing is for sure ” it did not come from the study itself, which at no point implicates fat in the diet and certainly not ‘ready meals’. In fact, in the whole study, the word ‘fat’ is not mentioned once.

Well, then, perhaps the fat and ‘ready-meal’ idea came from individuals Nic Fleming quoted in his article. Nope, no mention there either.

Let’s bear this in mind when we consider the first sentence of Nic Fleming’s piece, which reads, Women who eat a lot of high-fat ready meals and fast food are at substantially greater risk of developing cancers, scientists have found. And remember, this was on the front page of the newspaper!

Such shocking distortions of the evidence are commonplace in certain newspapers which peddle sensationalism over substance. But Nic Fleming is actually the Medical Correspondent of the Independent ” a ‘broadsheet’ and supposedly ‘quality’ publication that many trust to give them the facts. It seems to me that in this instance, Mr Fleming just made the ‘facts’ up as he went long. I think the Independent’s readers, and all of us, deserve far better.


1. Stattin P, et al. Prospective study of hyperglycemia and cancer risk. Diabetes Care 2007; 30(3)

5 Responses to The ‘quality’ press has the capacity to churn out ‘bad press’ too, it seems

  1. Brett Hardman 23 March 2007 at 2:51 pm #

    Give ’em hell, Dr John! Keep ’em honest!

  2. Chris 4 April 2007 at 5:22 pm #

    also funny that no comments about the research about meat and breast cancer today – very selective!

  3. Dr John Briffa 4 April 2007 at 7:34 pm #

    Please do bear in mind that work and travel commitments do not allow me to write on every health story that appears in a timely fashion.

  4. sam 12 September 2007 at 4:17 am #

    A well balanced diet wins again. Too bad I hate veggies!

  5. Observer 16 June 2008 at 11:17 am #

    To be fair, if we’re talking about fact checking, Nic Fleming was actually a correspondent for the Telegraph, not the Independent, as you suggest! If you put the headline into google you will see it referenced on the Telegraph’s website.

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