Herbs: Bilberry Bombs (cont.)

From this slim scientific record, you can't draw firm conclusions about whether bilberry works, say American researchers. "It's potentially an interesting area," says Frederick Ferris, MD, head of clinical trials at the National Eye Institute, "but I have no idea whether this is helpful or harmful." Commission E, a panel of experts convened by the German government to assess the safety and effectiveness of herbs, reached a similar verdict. Their monograph approves bilberry for only two conditions: diarrhea and inflammation of the mouth or throat.

But that won't convince a lot of supplement buyers, says Anthony Pratkanis, PhD, who researches marketing psychology at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Results from the sterile labs of scientists matter less to many people than the flavor of home-cooked medicine. The RAF tale presents a scenario in which "traditions win out over science. You've got these pilots stuck with a dangerous mission, and in rushes Grandma with bilberry jam."

So where did the story start? We may never know for sure, but David Holmes of Raleigh, N.C., suggests an intriguing possibility. He remembers hearing from his grandfather, who flew with the RAF during World War II, that the bombers' accuracy did suddenly improve after Britain began using radar. In order to hide the invention from the enemy, the Allies said the improvement resulted from something added to the pilots' diet.

"But," says Holmes, "in the story I heard, it was carrots."

Mitchell Leslie writes about science and health for New Scientist, Science, and Modern Drug Discovery.

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