Hype and Hoopla

Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.

Fraudulent nutritional claims abound in today’s market.

New dietary supplements constantly appear on the shelves of health food stores and some supermarkets. Enthusiastic proponents claim that these new dietary products can fight disease, slow aging, promote rapid weight loss, regulate hormones, enhance one’s energy level or perform some other desirable function. Books are published to spread the “good news” about such wonderful panaceas!

There are many people who believe that our crops are grown on depleted soils, our food is too heavily processed and refined, and we must resort to vitamin supplements in order to ensure adequate nutrition, counteract the effects of stress, and provide extra energy to cope with modern living.

A wide variety of herbal preparations are available and are commonly used for a whole host of common ailments or conditions such as allergies, anemia, arthritis, constipation, colds, coughs, fever, flu, headaches, high blood pressure, indigestion, insomnia, intestinal disorders, menstrual disorders, nervousness, sexual disorders, stress, ulcers, and other conditions. These herbal substances are easily obtained, are usually not very expensive, and appeal to those wishing to use natural remedies.

Some of the herbs may actually provide beneficial physiological effects. For example chamomile is a useful anti-inflammatory; echinacea fights upper respiratory infections; feverfew helps migraines; garlic lowers blood lipids and inhibits blood clots; ginger is useful for nausea; gingko improves cerebral circulation; and valerian is a mild tranquillizer. On the other hand, the FDA has identified a number of readily available herbs that can cause harm. These include chaparral, comfrey, ephedra, lobelia and yohimbe.

Nutrition fraud can lead to deleterious health consequences caused by the failure to seek needed medical care in a timely manner; the ingestion of potentially toxic herbal substances; self-medication with high-potency vitamin and mineral supplements; following extreme weight-loss programs and highly restrictive diets; interference with sound nutrition education and promoting distrust of proven public health measures such as fluoridation and pasteurization.

Examples of fraudulent claims made for commonly promoted products include:

  • ginseng is a panacea for many ailments
  • bee pollen enhances one’s youth and energy
  • lecithin cures heart disease
  • spirulina is a useful diet aid
  • DNA and RNA are anti-aging remedies
  • hair analyses to determine nutritional status
  • chromium picolinate promotes weight loss
  • “natural” vitamins are better metabolized than synthetic ones and organic foods provide better nutrition than conventional foods.

The promotion of melatonin is a good example of exaggerated claims and big profits being made for a product oversold as a panacea. Melatonin is made during the night by the pineal gland, and can induce sleep. Claims are also made that it helps with jet lag, fights disease and slows aging. Over-the-counter doses are generally ten times too high and can cause severe headaches, mental impairment, and mood changes. Melatonin also has antithyroid and gonadal suppressive action and inhibits prostaglandin metabolism. Furthermore, no one knows what are the long term effects of its use.


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