Science is supposed to help us, and derive informed theories and truths from carefully evaluated information. But needless to say, the things we hear from scientific studies can be conflicting. Fat is good; fat is bad. Wine is amazing for you; wine is poison. Even "superfoods" like kale eventually get the red flag treatment.
And things get even more muddled when studies are sponsored by corporations or organizations that could benefit from their potential outcomes. Take, for instance, the recent series of studies "disproving" soda's negative health effects … that turned out to be sponsored by Coca-Cola. Surprise, surprise.
Now, skeptics are going after a University of Maryland study that appears to promote the consumption of a certain brand of locally produced chocolate milk to a suspicious degree. Chocolate milk is tasty, but are we really supposed to believe that this one particular kind of chocolate milk can be used to treat concussions in athletes? It all seems a little too good to be true.
In late December, the University of Maryland released a statement that lauded Fifth Quarter Fresh milk for making high school football players who consumed it better-performing on tests, more coordinated, and quicker to recover from injuries. Although milk has previously been shown to be an effective workout recovery drink, the university's insistent praise for Fifth Quarter Fresh specifically sounded the alarms of more than a few bullshit meters.
The study was funded by a university program called Maryland Industrial Partnerships, and included 474 high school football players over the course of their fall 2014 season. Half the players regularly consumed Fifth Quarter Fresh's chocolate milk after every team practice and game; it isn't specified what the others drank, just that they didn't consume Fifth Quarter Fresh.
The participants—some of whom suffered concussions while playing football, and some of whom hadn't—then underwent a series of tests.
Referring to the improved cognitive and motor function that drinkers of the stuff allegedly experienced, Jae Kun Shim, a professor of kinesiology, said in the press statement: "High school football players, regardless of concussions, who drank Fifth Quarter Fresh chocolate milk during the season, showed positive results overall … Athletes who drank the milk, compared to those who did not, scored higher after the season than before it started, specifically in the areas of verbal and visual memory."
Parts of the official statement about the study read more like an advertisement than an impartial scientific study.
"Non-concussed athletes who drank Maryland-produced Fifth Quarter Fresh showed better cognitive and motor scores over nine test measures after the season as compared to the control group," read one part. "Fifth Quarter Fresh is a fat-free chocolate milk made by combining nutrient-rich milk (yielding 40 percent more protein, calcium and electrolytes than conventional milk) with the benefits of a pasteurization process that preserves proteins and makes them easier for the body to absorb, according to the company."
The statement also mentions that county officials in Maryland are now "the broad adoption of Fifth Quarter Fresh in sports programs throughout its school system."
After widespread complaints that the study toed the lines of conventional ethics of this type of research, the University of Maryland disclaimed that the results were preliminary and would require further scientific review. The university says that the data wasn't necessarily incorrect, but that the study was not properly vetted.
Pat O'Shea, vice president of research at the University of Maryland, told Fox News, "We value our reputation and we value the advice we give to the public, and I believe this is not characteristic of what a leading, respected university should do." Additionally, the ImPACT concussion test—used by researchers in the study to gauge players' cognitive abilities—has previously been criticized as flawed and inaccurate.
Look: chocolate milk is tasty, and perhaps even healthy in some regards. But that doesn't mean it should be portrayed as guaranteed to heal your brain after a serious knockout.
Shelve it next to the sketchy anti-concussion drink that Tom Brady once endorsed, which promised to be a "seat belt for your brain." Until it wasn't.