Whether you’re in the grocery store aisle, drugstore aisle, flipping through the pages of a lifestyle magazine or perusing Amazon, health products are everywhere. Too many of their claims are based on bogus science, pseudoscience, psychobabble or good old-fashioned snake oil. Often the names and claims sound scientific but too often are not. A new term to describe fake scientific claims is “scienceploitation”. Consider this from The New York Times:
You can’t browse a grocery store or pharmacy without being subject to flashy labels that promote health benefits. In the beverage aisle, for example, you might find “prebiotic” sodas that supposedly support “gut health.” In the beauty department, you’ll see “medical-grade” serums, “probiotic” facial creams and “skin detoxing” treatments. Go to the supplements section for promises of “immunity support,” “hormone balance” and “energy enhancement,” among other things.
People tend to place more faith in product claims when they are sprinkled with terms that make them sound supported by science. It’s a great marketing gimmick where image or imagination allow sellers to boost the price based on unsubstantiated claims.
Buyers are prioritizing scientific evidence, said Sienna Piccioni, an analyst and head of beauty at WSGN, a trend forecasting company. But they can’t always separate fact from fiction: A 2021 study suggested that people who trust science were more likely to share false claims that contained scientific references than claims that didn’t.
Often heath claims are crouched in vague terms that sound good but have no objective standard.
Manufacturers use words without clear and specific definitions, like “aids,” “promotes,” “supports,” “stimulates,” “boosts” and “optimizes” to suggest positive health outcomes. There’s no quantifiable way to measure an ambiguous word like “support,” said Jonathan Jarry, a scientist and science communicator with McGill University’s Office for Science and Society.
One thing to remember, if most dietary supplements, skin products and other goods that claim to offer medical benefits actually did what they claim they do, they would require U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. For example, that is why many products have a disclaimer:
Supplement companies, which do not have to prove effectiveness to the Food and Drug Administration, frequently rely on the terms used above. But there’s often a small disclaimer on the bottle that says the product “is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
I have often seen claims a product is “clinically tested” or they have done “clinical studies.” I tend to disregard those claims since clinical studies are expensive. Also, if a product has clinical studies, it could be submitted to the FDA as a prescription drug treatment at a much higher price. Any product intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease requires FDA approval.
Sometimes when a product claims to be clinically tested, the tests are not even theirs. That is fine if the research is related but sometimes the research cited is unrelated. Look for and recognize words that sound official, clinical or scientific but have no real meaning. My wife used to work for the FDA. She is quick to point out that the word “natural” has no real meaning in the regulation of products. It’s basically a marketing term.
“They’re implying the product works, and then on the same label, much less visible, is the fact that there’s no evidence that it works,” said Josh Bloom, the director of chemical and pharmaceutical science at the American Council on Science and Health.
Other phrases, like “clinically tested,” “research-backed,” “doctor recommended” and “evidence-based,” show up in the beauty or personal care aisle — and often lack the context they’d need to be verified, Dr. Wong said.
If something really works well and does exactly what it claims there are still times to worry. Years ago, while researching patient satisfaction with drugs, I came across testimonials from people unaffiliated with the product manufacturer. A “male enhancement” product claimed to work like Viagra and numerous reviews agreed. Months later the FDA issued a warning letter to the importer for selling products adulterated with sildenafil (i.e. generic Viagra). It worked because it was real (and illegal). Another time the FDA banned a dietary supplement designed to treat high cholesterol. It was made from red rice yeast that produced the substance Monacolin-K, with the same chemical composition as an FDA-approved cholesterol drug, Lovastatin.
The takeaway from The New York Times article is to take scientific claims in consumer health, beauty and wellness products with a grain of salt.