Friday, February 21, 2014

MLM Absurdities: The "Big Placebo" industry that markets nutritional supplement woo

Dietary supplements
Dietary supplements Do they actually improve your health?
(Photo credit: Andrei Z)
In studying the network marketing industry, MLM Skeptic had come to a conclusion that most network marketing companies deal with nutritional supplements and skin care, or as the somewhat pejorative slang goes: "lotions and potions".

The "potions and lotions" often promise some very vague and generalized health effects, with weasel descriptions such as:
Recently I came upon a quote by Richard Dawkins, and found it very applicable here:
If any remedy is tested under controlled scientific conditions and proved to be effective, it will cease to be alternative and will simply become medicine. So-called alternative medicine either hasn't been tested or it has failed its tests. 
The same applies to any sort of nutritional supplement, really. If any nutritional supplement is properly scientifically tested and proved to be effective, it will be adopted as national or even global nutritional standard. And it's clear that except for a few select examples, most nutritional supplements on the market are just woo, as they have not been tested properly, or have failed its tests to be effective in something.

So why do these nutritional supplements proliferate, and can be found in supermarkets and pharmacies and more?

The reason is quite troubling, as this has to do with growing scientific IGNORANCE and science denial.

A recent survey revealed that more than half of US population can't tell the difference between astrology and astronomy. That also means they can't tell what's scientific and what's not. They are at least partially scientifically ignorant. It is this population that relies on "experts" to make their decision, and often, the "expert" they trust is no such thing.

Previously MLM Skeptic had discussed the phenomenon of "wishful extrapolation", where some positive effects on a few cells or on mice in a lab was extrapolated into "beneficial for your body. This is especially common in the nutritional supplement arena, where companies find equine acupuncturists and general dermatologists to "prove" their nutritional supplements work.  (Makes you wonder what would a real nutritionist would say, hmmm?)

But consider this latest medical research result: "placebo effect" may account for 50% of a drug's effectiveness.  In other words, if you BELIEVE that the drug would work, you'll get 50% of the benefits, even if it's just water and sugar pills.

And the other half can explained by variety of probabilities, such as body's own immune system, natural healing, cyclical nature of symptoms, spontaneous remission, rest and relaxation, massage, hot shower, and much more.

Since nutritional supplements are NOT supposed to have any direct effects on the body (else they'd be drugs), ANY positive effect they have would therefore be attributable to placebo effect.

Yet you see every sort of nutritional supplements and skin care products advertised on TV, from CoQ 10 to Whey Protein, from special formulas of multi-vitamins (some may even be sold by your doctor) to uberjuice containing all sorts of uberfruits like Noni, Acai, Mangosteen, and more. Many of them have virtually no testing on humans. Most have only been tested on a few cells in a lab, or on test rats. Those tested on humans often have conflicting results, tiny sample size, or relied on "self-reporting" (i.e. relied on the participant scoring his or her own condition/feeling).

Multiple long-term studies of multi-vitamins and mineral supplements shows that they performed no better than placebo in improving anyone's health. Meta studies of studies also show that there is NO net benefit (if there is, it's negligible and definitely NOT worth the cost).

Furthermore, high doses of certain vitamins and minerals can actually cause harm.

What's even MORE interesting is a view posed by a famous scientist (and Nobel laureate), James Watson... all those "antioxidants"? They may be actually HURTING our body by removing the NECESSARY oxidants.

The conclusion is inescapable: nutritional supplement industry is mostly UNscientific, and relies on placebo effect to sell itself to the masses who believe the pseudo-science and insufficient science behind them, instead of real science backing the real medical experts.

In other words,  the nutritional supplement industry is one "Big Placebo" industry (much like people accuse the drug companies to be "Big Pharma")  Indeed, Michael Spector, a science reporter, had pointed this out at TED, as a symptom of science denial...

That is the sorry state we are in.

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  1. Have you come across the MLM company called It Works Global? I have a family member who is sucked into this. Recently, they were posting on Facebook a before and after photo of a child with severe excema that had been cured by a product called Greens. Greens is a fruit and vegetable supplement. They make all kinds of ridiculous claims and target young females with body image and low self worth.

    1. It's probably this one:

      Get copies of the claims, and report them to the FDA if you think they are promising cures. That's illegal claim for a nutritional supplement. CC your state attorney general and your city attorney if you think it's worth it.