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Green coffee beans give science a black eye

Dr. Oz didn’t mince his words when he described the wondrous effects of green coffee bean extract. “Magical,” “staggering,” an “unprecedented discovery!"

Dr. Oz  didn’t mince his words when he described the wondrous effects of green coffee bean extract. “Magical,” “staggering,” an “unprecedented discovery!” “Finally, a cure for obesity” he breathlessly gushed. I gasped too. Not at the results of the study that sent Oz into rapture, but at the credulity of the man. Losing 10.5% of one’s body weight and 16% of body fat in 22 weeks without any dieting or exercise? Just by taking green coffee bean extract? That would indeed be a miracle. If only the study had been properly conducted and involved more than 16 people.

But what we actually had was a study so sloppy that it was rejected by the journals to which it was originally submitted. That’s when, as the story goes, the manufacturer of the green coffee bean supplement, Applied Food Sciences, hired University of Scranton Professors Joe Vinson and Bryan Burnham to rewrite the paper to make it acceptable for publication. It seems these two had nothing to do with the research and were more or less hired guns. Obviously there is a major ethical issue here with university professors basically writing a paper about research that they were not involved in.

Granted, Dr. Oz could not have been aware of the sordid history of the publication but having been trained in science he should have known better than to tout a piece of ragged research that involved so few subjects as a “miracle.” His unbridled enthusiasm for the supplement led to skyrocketing sales but a pretty rough landing for the hopeful who bought into the easy weight loss scheme. But the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S. didn’t buy  the outrageous claims and launched an investigation, quickly concluding that the lead investigator in the study had altered some of the data and was even unclear about which subjects had taken the coffee bean extract and which the placebo. “Sloppy” would be the kind expression, “fraudulent” the more realistic one.

The FTC doesn’t take kindly to such fiddling with data and initiated legal proceedings. The result was a fine of $3.5 million for the company and a promise to desist from false advertising in the future. By this time Vinson and Burnham were feeling the heat and have now decided to retract the paper because as they said, “the sponsors of the study cannot assure the validity of the data.” What on earth are they talking about? Being the authors of the paper, didn’t they think of verifying the data before? They relied on the manufacturer of the product being tested to check the data? Does one ask the fox to check on the welfare of the chickens in the hen house? If it turns out that Vinson and Burnham were really paid to write this paper without having been involved in the research, some sort of disciplinary action is indicated.

“Green coffee bean-gate” should be widely publicized because it is an excellent example of how a credulous TV personality, shoddy science and a curious lack of judgment by a couple of professors can result in the runaway sales of a questionable product. A black eye for science.

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