Fake fertility news or miracle reproductive cure? Unpicking fact from fiction in infertility headlines

‘Eating tomatoes could improve sperm quality by up to 50%, scientists claim’ declares one headline. ‘Women with ‘masculine’ jobs will struggle to conceive’, shouts another. But what is the truth and how can anyone experiencing infertility expect to be able to unpick fertility fact from fiction?

Infertility takes a massive toll: physically, financially, socially and mentally. Trying and failing to become a parent for many months and often years typically leaves people deeply distressed, vulnerable and searching desperately for anything to improve their chances of having a baby. Read more about the emotional side of infertility here.

So what to think when media reports say research points to a new way forwards. Should you let your hopes be raised or take each piece of news with a pinch of salt?

Taking a more in-depth look at the striking tomatoes and sperm headline reveals that there’s a little bit more to it than simply tucking into a few more tomatoes. The small study involved just 60 healthy men – but not anyone with fertility problems. It investigated the effect of ingesting lycopene, a nutrient found in tomatoes, on sperm quality – assessing the impact on the numbers of sperm (count or concentration), sperm shape (morphology) and sperm movement (motility).

The study’s results revealed that taking a 15milligram supplement of lactolycopene (a combination of lycopene and whey protein which helps the body digest lycopene) daily for 12 weeks resulted in significant increases in the proportion of healthy-shaped sperm and sperm with good motility; however, there was no improvement in sperm concentration. But what this particular news story didn’t mention was that in order to ingest that much lycopene naturally you would have to 2kg of cooked tomatoes every day – or 2 tablespoons of concentrated tomato puree.

A man slicing tomatoes

And as the study did not look at men with fertility problems, the results cannot be directly extrapolated to anyone with infertility.

And what about the worrying claim that women with ‘masculine’ jobs can expect fertility problems? This news item stemmed from a presentation by a self-styled ‘natural fertility expert’ at a fertility show – where hundreds of hopeful couples had paid to come and hear expert fertility advice.

As part of her talk on how to improve your chances of IVF success, she cited evidence-based not on a clinical study but anecdotal evidence from one person, warning that being the breadwinner and ‘the one actually wearing the pants in their relationship… affects female fertility. It is because you are acting masculine and expecting your body to perform in a feminine way’. The fertility expert also advises women trying to conceive to eat organic food, use black-out blinds and practise fertility yoga.

So what can you do to separate fertility fact from fiction? First, fact check; for example, find out what and who were the scientists studying. Was it in people with a problem like yours? Were the people involved healthy? Was it an early piece of research looking at animals?

Checking how many people were involved in the research is also key. As a rule of thumb the higher the number of participants in the study, the better. Importantly, before making any radical changes or spending any money, ask your medical practitioner for their advice.

Finally, always be aware if someone is trying to sell something. Be it more newspapers or magazines, or their fertility product or lifestyle. Seek out impartial sources of fertility news. Fertility and genetics charity the Progress Educational Trust publishes a free online weekly news digest of fertility news, comments and reviews. Its view is to take everything with a pinch of salt; tomatoes too.