Jan 06 2009
There is a cycle to the snake oil market – like the fashion industry. Words and claims come in and out of fashion, used for marketing impact rather than scientific accuracy. Some words, like “natural” and “energy” have staying power, while others last for a time and then may fade, but can come back into fashion like wide ties. Magnetism seems to rear its head every 20 years or so, going back to the animal magnetism of Anton Mesmer. Radioactivity ended with the atomic bomb, but radio or EM waves are back in style. Anti-oxidants are still in their heyday, but perhaps past their peek.
Recently “detox” is all the rage. The basic concept is nothing new – potential customers are scared with the notion that their bodies are being harmed by invading toxins. This triggers our disgust emotion – an evolved defense against eating spoiled, contaminated or dangerous food. There is something deeply satisfying about the idea of getting bad things out of our bodies. It also is an appealing notion that symptoms we may be having are not a problem with our body itself, but is the result of something foreign that can be purged.
The word “detox” tries to capture all that. It’s an effective marketing slogan. It is also (as used in such marketing) utterly meaningless.
Recently, the UK team called Sense about Science (SAS) has taken on the detox scam. They are a group of young scientists who are basically skeptics. They describe themselves as follows:
Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust. We respond to the misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence on issues that matter to society, from scares about plastic bottles, fluoride and the MMR vaccine to controversies about genetic modification, stem cell research and radiation. We work with scientists and civic groups to promote evidence and scientific reasoning in public discussion.
Our recent and current priorities include alternative medicine, MRI, detox, radiation, health tests, the status of evidence in public health advice, an educational resource on peer review and the public language of science.
Sounds like a great group of chaps. As reported in this BBC article, the SAS recently investigated many so-called detox products.
Tom Wells, a chemist who took part in the research, said: “The minimum sellers of detox products should be able to offer is a clear understanding of what detox is and proof that their product actually works.
“The people we contacted could do neither.”
Detoxification, as defined medically, is a process of removing a specific toxin from the body, or managing the body’s removal of the toxin itself. Detox can therefore refer to the process of keeping an alcoholic medically safe while they clear alcohol out of their system. Or it can refer to the use of chelation therapy to treat genuine heavy metal poisoning.
As Wells points out, though, most detox products either do not mention any specific toxins and/or they do not provide evidence that their product aids in the removal of a toxin in any way. They also found that often companies just relabeled existing products with the word “detox.” For example they found that the sellers of a cleanser simply labeled their cleanser as a detox product, referring to the fact that it removed dirt and dead skin cells like any other cleanser.
The BBC article also contains a link to a TV interview where an SAS member goes up against a promoter of detoxinabox - a company that prepares and delivers food for an exorbitant price. They claim on their website:
Detox is a bodily process that transforms health threatening toxic substances from our environment, diets, as well as our own bodies into something harmless or excreted. One of the most complex detoxification functions is against heavy metals.
They then launch into the usual stuff about how today we are assaulted with toxins from everywhere – but hope is on the way, because their special diets help our bodies to detoxify. And then -
Once our bodies are not kept busy dealing with all these cleansing process, it can its focus on doing the more important things like fighting back cancer and chronic degenerative diseases, restoring our health, and repairing the damage in our body.
Right. They admit that the body can detoxify itself with the liver, kidneys, and other organs. So how does their food help the body do its normal function? It is amusing to watch the woman representing detoxinabox try to confuse and befuddle with her evasive answers. At one point she offers the lame answer that it is fuel – uh, yeah. Food is fuel and nutrition. Right. With help from the SAS the interviewers pretty much saw through the bull, challenging that their food is really just (at best) a healthy diet and has nothing to do with detox.
The wonderful Ben Goldacre went up against these slicksters also. Ben read some of the absurd claims straight from their website. He was briefly taken aback when Nas AmirAhmadi from detoxinabox tried to counter him by simply lying – flat out denying that what Ben was reading was from their website (listen to the audio on Ben’s site). Fortunately, the BBC Radio4 interviewer checked the website later and did verify that Ben Goldacre was correct – which Ben confirmed quickly on his website as well.
This recent nonsense is, of course, just the tip of the detox iceburg. Late night TV viewers, for example, are all familiar with the Kinoki detox foot pads. These are supposed to draw toxins out through your feet. The only evidence they have, however, is that they go on white and in the morning the pads are brown and dirty. Of course that can be explained simply by the dirt and dead skin cells that are coming off the bottom of your feet. But the Kinoki company claims their pads are drawing heavy metals out of the body and supporting the immune and lymphatic systems.
Scientific evidence for these claims – zero.
What the marketers of detox products have done is made the term “detox” meaningless – actually the term now is nothing but a red flag for snake oil.
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