Jan 06 2009

The Detox Scam

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Comments: 23

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.Ā  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 –Ā  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.Ā  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.Ā  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.

23 responses so far

23 thoughts on “The Detox Scam”

  1. PaulG says:

    Heard the Ben Goldacre interview on my drive into work this morning (between episodes of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe of course)… well worth listening to (the link to the audio + the audio of the confirmation is on the Bad Science blog, linked to above).

    Goldacre made the Detox in a Box director (Ahmadi), sound like the idiot she all too eagerly proved herself to be.

    Absolutely priceless.

  2. theo says:

    Yep. Detox in a box = epic fail. Goldacre pwnd her.

    You missed the detox foot bath! Check out the amusing (and ultimately sad) email exchange I had with a promoter of this electrolysis machine.

  3. caoimh says:

    It was heartening last night to come home from work and turn on the news to see a segment dedicated to this new study from Sense about Science.
    Then I left to drive and they were on the radio also.
    Good job to all involved.

  4. HHC says:

    I know a chiropractor that advertises that he does neurotoxic detoxification? What is this? Does his claim have any scientific
    basis in fact?

  5. Steve Page says:

    HHC: Yes, it does. Now, I have a bridge for sale if you’re interested… šŸ˜‰

    Ben did indeed pwn the detoxinabox MD(!). Funnily enough, I spoke to him after Robin Ince’s “9 Carols…” show recently, and the SGU came up in the conversation. If you get the chance to see his set about uberdouche Matthias Rath (the gig might become available on DVD at some point, with any luck), it was awesome; highly moving, and a perfect reminder of how dangerous the combination of woo and a shyster can be.

  6. Fifi says:

    Yeah, well “alternative” neurobiology is the big SCAM at the moment. Partly because it involves the ritual of brain scans, very sciency and sophisticated in that SciFi way! (Let’s just ignore the fact that SCAM artists routinely and needlessly expose their clients to things they claim are the ultimate evil elsewhere – the radiation from unnecessary x-rays and brain scans being just one!) Brain scanning seems to be the new horoscope for people who want to think they’re sciency and cutting edge but don’t actually like the limitations of science! (Er, not that I don’t want my own brain scanned out of idle curiosity. However, I’m unwilling to pay a quack to do it! Now if only I could fanangle my way into an experiment… šŸ˜‰

  7. battlestarlet says:

    Great post. I am an esthetician (facialist) and have been trying in vain to get a skeptic’s view of antioxidants (as you mentioned in your opening paragraph.) I’d love to read your thoughts.

    Frankly, I think a lot of what I do in the spa is woo-woo–lymphatic drainage (light massage done with suction cups), high frequency to treat pimples (current running through glass implements filled supposedly with noble gases), using colloidal silver topically (not internally) to treat dermatitis, etc–but I’m just not sure. I have tried to approach other skeptic’s with these questions but usually get boo-hoo’d for being in CAM-ridden occupation in the first place. But with the advances in skincare in the last decade like retinol, various acids, etc., I think my job is becoming more and more scientific. I would love your input on these topics.

    And, yes, unfortunately many of the skincare lines we sell claim to “detox.” It feels like an uphill battle sometimes.

  8. PaulG says:

    I’m sorry, and this isn’t helpful, but I just can’t resist…

    >> Iā€™d love to read your thoughts.

    If you’d like to read those thoughts, I’m sure there’s a psychic The NESS can recommend.

  9. Dan Roy says:

    LOL, I had an email dialogue running for weeks with another detox footbath meddler. My approach was another though. I just pretended to be curious about the product and implied several times that my company was planning to buy at least 15 of them for like 4,000 bucks each. This, of course, made the guy write long and laborious replies each time. I requested every possible documentation and official EU documents on the product. I really had him working his butt off for me.
    Finally, I send him a short message that he had been played and that he was scum for scamming people. He did not reply.

  10. s says:

    For your amusement. Response to a question in a health magazine, by said magazine’s detox expert šŸ™‚

    “Q: What is detox and what do you do?

    A: Dear XY, a detox can be done in many ways. But basically you exclude everything that has a toxic and slag building effect on the body. [Thus avoid] meat, fish, dairy, bread, meal, flour, sweets, ice cream, cookies and cakes, sodas etc. Base your diet on mostly fruits, greens, algae, seeds etc. Add a cure of cleansing herbs that will support the body’s ability to cleanse itself.”

    “Toxic and slag building effect”… Oh yeah, enjoy šŸ™‚

  11. HHC says:

    Steve Page, thanks for the humor. I like bridges particularly legal
    ones. Let’s try intellectual property for a challenge. What is neurotoxic detoxification, does it have an original author?

  12. sonic says:

    It is a shame that the word ‘detox’ has been made meaningless. Is it too much to ask that people use words in a way that is meaningful?

  13. psamathos says:

    @sonic: Detox is meaningful. It just refers to a concept that generally has no basis in reality.

  14. neokortex says:

    The Kinoki foot pad marketing ploy is to imply that they some secret or popular Japanese remedy–which combines a TCM-type appeal with “breakthrough medicine” from a high tech society. Funny thing is my girlfriend was born and raised in Japan and has never once heard of any such thing.

    Besides, would not a scientific validation of its effectiveness include–at a minimal–performing a chemical analysis of the content of whatever is on the pad itself plus whatever the “dirty stuff” is on it in the morning? Could well be nothing more than one of those facial cleansing pads used to remove dirt and oil.

  15. sonic says:

    psamathos- actually detox could mean the removal of toxins from the body. This can be applied to numerous procedures. This could save lives (as it currently does)
    The example Dr. N. refers to ‘heavy metals’ is just one of many.

  16. Calli Arcale says:

    neokortex, I seem to recall reading (possibly on Respectful Insolence, possibly on Science Based Medicine) that the foot pads were invented in Japan — your girlfriend could translate the name and the Japanese characters in the ad, but I seem to recall it simply refers to one of its major components. (A kind of bamboo? I don’t remember.) But if I recall correctly, in Japan, it wasn’t sold as a detox but simply as a method for cleaning one’s feet. Some enterprising individual saw this and realized he could rebrand it as a revolutionary (and simultaneously traditional) detox system with a fashionable Asian cachet, and then sell it to gullible people who aren’t familiar with the Japanese originals. If I recall correctly, that is.

  17. HHC says:

    I found the name of a leading authority on neurotoxic detoxification, R. Shoemaker.

  18. Fifi says:

    Here’s one of the many neuro supplement scams out there…I’d love it if you’d debunk this since they promote themselves very, very heavily and aim their pitch to people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.


    And contact info for the sellers of “NeuroReplete”

    To get a list of trained practitioners, please call 877-626-2220. Any one of the well trained technical support staff will be more that happy to give you the names and contact information of people who able to help you.

    Somebody called Marty Hinz,MD is promoting it.

  19. elvismorte says:

    Great post as always. However, “A great bunch of chaps?”
    I know you were trying to sound British, old boy. However, five of the thirteen of just the Board of Trustees are female. So I’m not sure it’s an accurate description, dude.

  20. Is “chaps” male specific these days? Then I stand corrected. I assumed it was like “guys” in that it can be used as gender-neutral.

  21. PaulG says:

    @Dr. N

    Speaking as a Brit’, I really can’t remember the last time I heard ANYBODY use the word “chaps” (and yes, it’s pretty male-oriented).

    Come to think of it, the last time I heard “chaps” was the SGU Rogues doing the Brit’ accent again (by way of Dick Van Dyke) – this is EXCRUCIATINGLY embarrassing. Makes me cringe every time I hear you guys go into the routine. But what the Hell, we listen anyway, don’t change a thing!

  22. theo says:

    As an Aussie, I can say with much authority, your British accents are as good as the British (generally) are at sport – i.e. not very. (I say generally due to the anomalies of the 2008 Olympics, the 2005 Ashes (cricket), and the 2003 Rugby World Cup…)

    Also, “chap” is definitely male.

  23. gsullivan says:

    I don’t know what to make of this:

    It seems to me that this gent is making the argument as complicated as possible in order to progress his own system of detox?

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