Food supplement advertisements strain credulity


The sheer volume of food supplements hawked on television is more than I can handle. When I stumble on a channel that is devoted to these advertisements, I realize that the viewing demographic is elderly. The baby boomers are not feeling so groovy as they age. Here are a few heavily advertised products that drive me to hit the mute button:

Relief Factor. A PhD in political science intones in favor of this product, while walking along the Washington, DC, reflecting pond, as patriotic music plays. Pain is a symptom, not a specific diagnosis. The goal of a thorough medical analysis is to generate a list of probable causes. What if a person neglects to obtain diagnosis of a serious condition while taking this supplement? Is there data, beyond that of testimonials, to support this product’s efficacy?

Balance of Nature. The traditional Inuit diet of the arctic hunter-gatherers contained little plant food. These intrepid people survived by consuming caribou and seal, as true carnivores. Yet the traditional Inuit appeared healthy. People adapt to myriad diets. Moreover, a pill containing vegetable extracts does not equate physiologically to a serving of plant-based food, in terms of digestive function, relieving hunger and absorbing cholesterol. Get real.

Prevagen. Elders experiencing memory loss reportedly respond to this jellyfish-derived product, based on reported data “ . . . on a clinical subgroup,” we are told. Where is the data demonstrating that an oral product, broken down by stomach acid and digestive enzymes, will alter brain physiology? Moreover, a complaint of memory loss should prompt a detailed evaluation to exclude thyroid disease, hypertension, depression and other causes.

Super Beta Prostate. In evaluating prostate symptoms, a physician needs to exclude underlying pathology, particularly prostate cancer. Turning to a food supplement is a bad approach, with the potential to delay evaluation by physical examination or blood testing.

Relaxium Sleep. The salesperson for this product is a “former presidential candidate,” who strokes his guitar while delivering folksy advice on how to sleep better. His friend, a country music star, sits next to him and delivers an impassioned testimonial. Again, sleeping poorly is not a “diagnosis,” but a condition that reflects general health and lifestyle habits. For example, heart failure and diabetes may impact sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or orthopedic problems may play a role.

Super Beets. Due the purported ability to “unlock nitric oxide,” this product can reportedly “support healthy blood pressure” while “increasing your circulation,” and gives you “powerful antioxidant support” that will increase your energy. Athletes endorse it, football teams use it. College football players and coaches, of course, are nutritional experts.

Dietary supplements, as defined by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, are typically vitamins, minerals, botanical extracts, enzymes, metabolites or similar substances, classified as “foods,” not as drugs. Supplement labels and advertisements declare: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

The supplement disclaimer rushes past the viewers’ eyes in an instant, typically in microscopic font. Could it be that soft-pedaling the disclaimers reflects the uncomfortable reality that supplement commercials do, in fact, suggest that these products cure medical conditions? The companies clearly desire a bullet-proof disclaimer, while recognizing the contradictions inherent in the overall project.

William Osler (1849-1919), a Johns Hopkins medical professor, observed: “Quit worrying about your health. It’ll go away.” Turning off the television and taking a walk, however, might delay the inevitable. Should you purchase dietary supplements to forestall physiological aging? I am skeptical regarding the cost-benefit ratio inherent to supplement products. Caveat emptor (Latin for “Let the buyer beware”) guides my outlook. See your doctor regarding your specific situation.

Scott T. Anderson, MD ([email protected]), is a clinical professor at the University of California, Davis Medical School. This column is informational and does not constitute medical advice.

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