I have been disappointed with some of the content of the BBC’s Grow Your Own Drugs: in particular, its discussion of the use of turmeric and willow bark. I have therefore submitted two complaints to the BBC, and will explain my concerns in this post.
The programme suggests a daily dose of turmeric tea for arthritis treatment: arguing the curcumin in this may be beneficial. Sadly, though, this treatment is simply implausible: curcumin’s bioavailability is poor and (even if black pepper can improve bioavailability) it seems impossible that a daily cuppa would give enough of a dose to do anything particularly useful. I pointed this out to the BBC, and they responded to me:
While we appreciate your concerns, it’s always been the case that James Wong doesn’t believe that natural remedies are a replacement for conventional medicine, and he reminds viewers of this during the series. The programme’s website also explains this
While I am delighted that the BBC make clear that implausible treatments shouldn’t be used to replace actual medicine, it is nonetheless unhelpful for them to suggest implausible treatments in the first place. I have therefore asked them to consider my complaint again.
I have since noticed that the BBC offers a recipe for the tea, accompanied by the claim that it is useful for “arthritis, aches and pains in the joints, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease and other inflammatory conditions.” These claimed benefits are, again, implausible; it is unhelpful for the BBC to publish such suggestions for what can be serious medical conditions. This page does not offer a disclaimer regarding not using implausible treatments to replace actual medicine (nor make clear the implausibility of the claims made).
The programme and websites’ discussion of arthritis treatment is especially unfortunate because there is some good evidence regarding dietary treatments for rheumatoid arthritis [PDF]. Sadly, though, the programme choose to omit discussion of the more evidence-based approach – of eating a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet – and instead focus on special tea.
Also worrying was the programme’s discussion of the use of willow bark as a painkiller. Clearly, willow bark contains active ingredients – quite plausible as a painkiller. However, one has to be careful with active ingredients – too much can be a bad thing, and it is therefore unfortunate that the programme fails to mention the (unsurprising) lack of standardisation between trees.
Worryingly, viewers are advised to make willow bark into a sweet granita: with a recipe posted online. The BBC, correctly, make clear that this granita is not for children. However, there are reasons why people have tended to avoided putting medicine into sweets – sweets might be more pleasant to take, but also increase the overdose risk if children are around. The same issue, I suspect, applies to tasty sweet granita – and, while medicine cabinets may lock or be positioned out of the reach of kids, this is seldom the case with freezers. Unfortunately, the BBC failed to even mention these risks.
The effects of plants on humans is a fascinating topic. There is lots of really interesting research on the subject. However, Grow Your Own Drugs has unfortunately dealt with the topic badly: failing to engage well with the relevant research and failing to offer appropriate cautions. The BBC should do better.