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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Quackery

Did you know that you can make just about any claim about a supplement and get away with it? As long as you don't say it's medicine, you can say ANYTHING!

I see a table with juice samples at my local Whole Foods, and wander on up for a sample. It is a supplement mixed in juice, with vitamins and amino acids, which are intended to boost energy. As I am a huge fan of free samples, I try some.

"This will boost your energy, if you take it with our vitamin B complex," the woman tells me.

No one expects that a woman with long hair wearing a tie-dye shirt, blue jeans, and big sunglasses wandering her local Whole Foods at 4 pm on a weekday is a cardiologist (we were done for the day in the cath lab, and I was out early). So, I ask: "Do you have proof?"

Her: "It has amino acids."

Me: "Okay, but do you have any scientific data that shows that ingesting amino acids will increase energy?" I know that the answer is no, but I'd love to hear what they have to say.

Her: "They're amino acids. The building blocks to proteins."

I'm realizing, not surprisingly, that this woman has no idea what she's talking about. Me: "What I am asking is, do you know of any trials from the scientific literature that prove that taking this supplement will provide more energy?"

Her (looking uncomfortable): "Ummm... no, I'm sorry, I don't think we have any of that here."

Her boss or co-worker overhears the exchange and offers me a brochure entitled "Energy", written by a physician who has written and researched on chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. I'm offered brochures on chronic fatigue syndrome and on stress, but decline.

This brochure is interestingly done -- it talks about what various vitamins do, in a chart form that I've seen in a few medical textbooks, and the heading above the "what it does" column is changed to "effect on vitality and energy". Very fancy. The physician then claims that "most Americans are chronically dehydrated", which is completely untrue, and while he has over 100 references, not one to support that claim of chronic dehydration.

Another doozy: He talks about how stress will "...exhaust the adrenal reserve" and that "...it is important to supplement your adrenals with a glandular therapy regimen to ensure healthy cortisol levels and adrenal function." He has two references for his claim: one is his book, the other a study on sodium deficiency in guinea pigs!

The problem is, people actually believe this nonsense. A man with an "MD" after his name prints it. And even though most of his references are to books (as opposed to actual studies), including frequently his own "From Fatigued to Fantastic" book, it all looks quite scientific to the lay person.

All in all, this is a very expensive multivitamin. A multivitamin is okay to take, because we don't get everything every day in our diet in spite of our best efforts. This one is no better than any other one. Oh, and the amino acids? You get plenty of those in a balanced, varied diet. And if you want more energy, do more, exercise, push yourself.

Bottom line: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Don't be afraid to ask your doctor before you spend lots of money on a seemingly magical cure to your ailments.

7 comments:

herself75 said...

sounds like the pseudo-science I keep running into in my own research on Autism. it is insane! people have an agenda and create a "study" to prove themselves right.. it is akin to repeatedly slamming my hand in a door. one of these days a REAL reasearch team will come up with a REAL treatment... but I suppose filling your kid full of expensive vitamins makes you feel like you are doing something...

Veg-a-Nut said...

I love it! You were great. I see so many people buying and buying without doing any research into what they are buying. You see weight loss ads for pills and wierd machines. I tell my friends if the stuff really worked don't you think there would be a lot less heavy people? Balanced diet, healthy whole foods and you can win half the battle. Add exercise and you will have a good thing going.

Urban Vegan said...

Funny. I got into the same kind of debate over a face cream once. The woman was using all these catch-phrases but didn't really know what they meant--which irked me.

Danielle said...

I know the name of the doc you're talking about...

Anytime a product talks about how much energy it has, I have to remember that calories=energy. So a product that says it gives you lots of energy probably has lots of calories

Xavier Emmanuelle said...

Oh, I hate that. I've gotten into many a heated discussion which ends in me drawing macromolecules and attempting to explain why, scientifically, their claims make no sense. My favorite was the woman who tried to sell me on a juice that apparently boosts renal function, shrinks malignancies, enhances immunity, etc. The key ingredients? polysaccharides and ascorboc acid. The saleslady turned an interesting shade of purple when I told her what those are.

RachelinMO said...

I loved this entry! I used to work at a health food store and we had an answer for everything! We used to laugh about the key phrases at break time! Our favorite fall back was " well we sure sell alot of that" worked everytime. People will buy anything if it is in a health food store. I should never admit this, but I believed all of the crap we told people until I took Bio and Chem in college.
I would love to hear more about your shopping experiences.
Keep Writing!

Xavier Emmanuelle said...

Whoops, I meant ascorbic acid.