Recently we received the following e-mail:
My friend is starting to sell nutritional supplements for a multi-level marketing health company. He is testing all his friends saliva with litmus strips to determine our PH balance. If it’s acidic, (which we all were) he then prescribed herbal supplements and diet of green vegetables for us saying our present diets of fast foods, overcooked foods and lifestyles have let certain toxins into our body turning us acidic which can lead to all sorts of health problems. ……SO is this for real? My skeptic light went on immediately, but I had to bite my tongue because 1. he’s my good friend 2. he seemed very excited about his new job, and 3. I didn’t have any good material to argue with him. Please let me know what you think of PH balancing – I’ve also heard of this from several other people and the internet is full of PH balancing supplements.
Thanks, John, for the question. This is becoming a common claim in the arsenal of quackery. Before I go into the medical background of the claim that body PH can be used as a measure of health, let’s take a look at the claim from a generic skeptical viewpoint. Without any prior medical knowledge, a critical thinker should see many red flags raised by these claims.
Red Flag #1 – Mult-Level Marketing
MLM, simply put, is a scam unto itself. It is not a legitimate business model but rather is a thinly veiled pyramid scheme. Anything sold through a MLM company is immediately suspect. For more information, see our interview with Robert Fitzpatrick: http://www.theskepticsguide.org/skepticsguide/podcastinfo.asp?pid=135
Red Flag #2 – Nutritional Supplements
In the United States nutritional supplements are regulated according to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). (Many countries have similar regulation.) This law, promoted by Senators Tom Harkin and Orrin Hatch (both true-believers in supplements) allows for companies to make certain kinds of health claims for “supplements” without having to provide any scientific evidence. It also defines supplements very broadly – beyond a reasonable scientific definition, which would be nutritional substance taken to supplement the diet – i.e. food. But DSHEA allows herbal medicine to be classified as supplements even though they are taken for their pharmacological activity – not their nutritional value.
This does not mean that any particular true supplement or herbal drug cannot be useful and effective for a particular health effect – it just means they can be marketed with claims without evidence. Hatch thinks the public is smart enough to decide what to take for themselves. How we are supposed to decide without evidence, though, he does not say. This opened the floodgates to a multi-billion dollar supplement industry. What this means for the consumer is that you should be especially suspicious of unregulated health claims made for “supplements”.
Red Flag #3 – Simple Answers to Complex Questions
Human health is complex. There is no one test for overall health or one scheme by which health can be evaluated and treated. Any claims attributing all bad health to one cause, or claiming to treat all illness with one modality, or even claiming that a very long list of seemingly unrelated ailments have the same underlying cause, should be looked upon with suspicion.
Red Flag #4 – The answer is – buy my product.
Consumers are generally savvy when it comes to sales people. We understand from culture and experience that a sales person is trying to sell us something and therefore we should be suspicious of what they are telling us. This is true even if that person is your friend, and even (especially) if they are selling a health claim.
Red Flag #5 – Why is this not part of mainstream medicine?
This is a good question to ask yourself whenever presented with an alternative or unusual health product. If a simple test that a doctor could do in their office (and charge for – we love tests and procedures) could give meaningful health information that can guide therapy, why would this not already be in widespread use? If the answer is to prescribe something – why would the doctor care what that something was as long as it was safe, effective, reasonably convenient and affordable?
In other words – why wouldn’t doctors be doing this? The usual answers have red flags themselves. They either involve conspiracy theories, or amount to the claim that doctors are trained automatons who cannot think for themselves.
Getting back to point #4 – what if the treatment was something the doctor was selling out of his office and making a tidy profit on? I would be a bit suspicious of that – but that is all the more reason to think that practitioners would be motivated to do it.
The bottom line is that there is no legitimate reason to argue that if this were scientifically legitimate it would not already be in mainstream use.
Now let’s get to the medical claim itself – that one’s PH can be used as a diagnostic test for overall health and be used as a guide to make dietary changes and purchase supplements. This is utter nonsense (I bet you saw that coming).
PH is a 1-14 logarithmic measurement scale of how acidic or alkaline a substance is – 1 being very acidic, 14 being very alkaline, and 7 being neutral. Different tissues in the body have different PH’s, with the blood having a PH of about 7.4, which is slightly alkaline. The stomach is extremely acidic with a PH around 2.
The mouth has a PH that ranges from 5.6-6.9. This is the optimal PH range for the enzyme amylase that is the active digestive enzyme in saliva. Therefore, you cannot test the “body” PH by testing the saliva – you are only testing the PH in the mouth. This may not reflect overall body PH. It is also not surprising that John and all his friends tested acidic in the mouth – this is a gimmick, a trick to make it seem as if their bodies are too acidic and therefore they need to purchase the supplements.
Further – PH is carefully maintained in the body with multiple mechanisms, primarily the kidneys and the lungs. Blood PH is maintained within a narrow range. If, for example the blood becomes slightly too acidic you will breath slightly heavier, blowing off carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is acidic, so by getting rid of a little bit of CO2 the body can tweak the blood PH and keep it is a narrow range.
Most disease states do not significantly effect blood PH. Some do, and that is an important part of the diagnostic process. For example, diabetic ketoacidosis involves acidosis – acidic blood – because the cells in the body cannot get the sugar they need for energy so they make ketones for energy and ketones are acidic.
Diet does not affect body PH. The foods that you eat do not and should not affect body PH at all. There are certain poisons that will change your body’s PH – a large dose of methanol results in the build up of formic acid, which overwhelms the body’s ability to regulate PH and causes a metabolic acidosis. This is an acute intoxication and a dangerous situation. Being acidotic causes someone to feel acutely ill. It is not a “silent killer” causing chronic illness or symptoms.
Therefore, balancing the body’s PH and measuring it with an oral litmus test is complete pseudoscience. It is nonsense which is just plausible-sounding enough to market fraudulent health products to the public.
One more thing, John. You should not be reticent about confronting your friend. You are not doing him a kindness. He is caught up in a scam, one that motivates him to spread the scam to his family and friends. Further – it is a healthcare scam, which means it has the potential to negatively effect the health of anyone in your social circle who buy into the nonsense.
As the resident skeptic in your social group, in a way it is your responsibility to be the voice of reason. Therefore you will need to confront any dangerous nonsense that invades your group. You can do it in a friendly and helpful manner. It seems that you truly want to save your friend from being conned and from innocently conning and harming others. This should come across.
Another thing to consider is that most MLM companies have a huge turnover. This means that 6-12 months from now your friend may realize that this was not a good business opportunity. After losing thousands he may also realize that the health products don’t actually work. What are you going to tell him them – I knew it all along but kept my mouth shut because I wanted to avoid an unpleasant confrontation? If this guy is truly your friend you should want to help him, even if it may initially be a bit unpleasant.