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Jan 05 2014

Beware the Detox Fraud

There are a few handy buzzwords that almost always indicate that you’re dealing with pseudo-scientific bullshit (“all-natural,” “balance,” “energy,” “vibration,” etc). And whenever you see a product promising to “detoxify” your body, that should send up a red flag big enough to block out the sun, as Scott Gavura points out.

New Year, New You, right? 2014 is the year you’re finally going to get serious about your health. You’re winding down from a week (or more) of celebrations and parties. You’re pretty much recovered from New Year’s Eve by now. It’s time to make some resolutions. Conveniently, there is no shortage of solutions being advertised to absolve you of your sins while overhauling your body and soul for 2014: What you need to do is “detox”. You’ll see the detox kits at your local Whole Foods (or even your local pharmacy). Books, boxes or bottles, with some combination of “detox”, “cleanse” or “flush” in the product name. Supplements, tea, homeopathy, coffee enemas, ear candles, and footbaths all promise detoxification. The advertising suggests you’ll gain a renewed body and better health – it’s only seven days and $49.95 away. Or try to cleanse yourself with food alone: Dr. Oz is hyping his Holiday Detox plan. Bon Appetit is featuring their 2014 Food Lover’s Cleanse. Or what about that old standby, the “Master Cleanse”? It’s the New Year – wouldn’t a purification from your sins of 2013 be a good idea to start the year? After all, the local naturopath offers complete detoxification protocols, including vitamin drips and chelation. There must be something to it, right?

Wrong. “Detox” is a case of a legitimate medical term being turned into a marketing strategy – all designed to treat a nonexistent condition. In the setting of real medicine, detoxification means treatments for dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol, or poisons, like heavy metals. Detoxification treatments are medical procedures that are not casually selected from a menu of alternative health treatments, or pulled off the shelf in the pharmacy. Real detoxification is provided in hospitals when there are life-threatening circumstances. But then there are the “toxins” that alternative health providers claim to eliminate. This form of detoxification is simply the co-opting of a real term to give legitimacy to useless products and services, while confusing consumers into thinking they’re science-based.

If a product promises to rid the body of “toxins” without actually specifying what they are or what specific process is used to remove them, it’s a fraud. It’s really that simple.

41 comments

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  1. 1
    coragyps

    I have even asked, “Which toxins are they removing?” But I didn’t get an answer.

    And that detox was with insoles that you sleep with that “chelate toxins” through your feet. The insoles turned dark to show how hard they had been working. Deionized water also turned them dark, but hey…

  2. 2
    daved

    Sometimes they actually *do* list the “toxins” that they are removing. Going through the list can be quite a hoot. It’ll include substances you can’t even find in a web search — except on other web pages that are also offering to detoxify you. In this case, I think “detoxify” means “remove filthy lucre from”.

  3. 3
    Bronze Dog

    I think it’s a very appropriate metaphor. The “detox” procedures are quackery’s equivalent to all those sin-cleansing rituals of religion. You have to suffer through the nonsense to earn forgiveness for eating a Triple Baconator.

    Even if you look at obesity as chronic poisoning, it doesn’t mean one Triple Baconator is going to ruin you, but one every meal certainly will. Real toxicology is about dosage and time, not a binary yes/no. When it comes to food, it’s okay to eat “unhealthy” food in moderation. It’s excess that makes it unhealthy.

  4. 4
    Trebuchet

    @1:

    I have even asked, “Which toxins are they removing?”

    QUANTUM toxins!

  5. 5
    Drew

    Last year around February my neighbors started seeing a personal trainer.

    Female neighbor: My new trainer wants me to start on a “detox” where I only drink this stuff that comes with the detox kit for 2 weeks. What do you think?

    Me (scientist): That whole detox thing is bullshit.

    Female neighbor: She says that it will help me lose a lot of weight over that period by removing toxins.

    Me: Well you’ll probably lose a lot of weight during that time. But it will be because you’re basically on a 2 week long crash diet that might keep your stomach full enough that you don’t feel hungry all the time but provides you with little nourishment.

    2 Weeks Later…

    FN: I did my detox and I lost a lot of weight.

    Me: mm hmm

    FN: Didn’t you tell me that it wouldn’t work?

    Me: What I told you was that the whole detox thing was bullshit but that you’d lose weight as a consequence of being on what is essentially a crash diet for 2 weeks.

    FN: But I feel so much better with all the toxins gone.

    Me: What toxins exactly were removed?

    FN: I don’t know but why else would I feel so much better?

    Me: Do you think that you might feel better because you’ve lost a bunch of weight and been exercising steadily during the last month or so for probably the first time since you had your first child (~10 years)?

    [A long pensive stare at me]

    Me: The problem you’re going to have now is that your weight loss is going to slow down a lot because you’re no longer on a crash diet, and you need to make sure that you don’t let that demotivate you to the point that you stop going to work out.

  6. 6
    marcus

    @4 I”QUANTUM toxins!
    THOSE ARE THE WORST KIND AND THE HARDEST TO GET RID OF!!! PLEASE SEND $49.95 TO ME AT THE ADDRESS BELOW IMMEDIATELY.! DO NOT HESITATE! YOUR LIFE, YOUR HEALTH, YOUR VERY DNA, ALL ARE AT RISK!!!

  7. 7
    John Pieret

    In mild defense of Bon Appetit, it seems they aren’t selling supplements or treatments but just suggesting that, after the holiday binge of eating and drinking, you might want to spend two weeks without refined starches, most dairy products, processed meats, and refined sugars. They are also suggesting low-alcohol cocktails. While the differences between refined starches and refined sugars and their unrefined bretheren are hardly clear when it comes to human health, none of the stuff they recommend involve any health risks and doesn’t involve costs other than buying food and preparing it, which you have to do anyway.

    I would classify it as mildly wooish in terminology but not actual woo.

  8. 8
    Area Man

    I have even asked, “Which toxins are they removing?” But I didn’t get an answer.

    The answer I have gotten is… toxins!

    A lot of people seem to think that toxins are an abstraction as opposed to being concrete, specific molecules.

  9. 9
    Trebuchet

    There are also the “cleansing” ones, suggesting you’re carrying around pound upon pound of crusty old poop in your intestines. Same shit, different scam.

  10. 10
    naturalcynic

    Back in the good old days, they were called purgatives.
    The simplest way to get rid of toxins is a good old bloodletting.

  11. 11
    Zeno

    Since my sister-in-law left my brother, we no longer have her hawking her detox regimens at family gatherings. She was especially big on foot baths where the “cleansing salts” she poured into the hot water gradually turned dark as they “absorbed the poisons from your body.” Most of the women in my family were amazed by how effective it was, but did not try any hot foot baths without the magic chemicals to see if it was just as relaxing that way. I’m sure she was sincere, though. Just as fooled as anyone else.

  12. 12
    cry4turtles

    I had to “detox” from eggnog this year. True story.

  13. 13
    DrewN

    My mother was once talked into drinking a “detox” drink with every meal by one of her friends. It was essentially just carrot juice with laxatives.

    For most people that’d just be a bit gross. But my mother is a diabetic and it really screwed up her sugar. She ended up at her doctor, and was given a very long & scary lecture about why she should never do that again. Everything ended up alright, but she could have been seriously harmed if not killed if she kept drinking it.

  14. 14
    democommie

    I had a bumscope earlier this year and had a nice chat with the nice doctorish person I saw a few weeks before the procedure. I asked her if there was ANY basis to the “eliminationist” guy’s claims (he’s the one who looks like John Waters and does disinfomercials to sell his crap) about my intestines–or anyone else’s–being packed with up to 20 pounds of rotting waste. She rolled her eyes and laughed.

  15. 15
    Sastra

    When you get right down to it the “toxins” are the modern age. Apparently everything has been going downhill since we were hunter/gatherers living off the land in harmony with nature (Nature.) So it’s not just ‘chemicals’ and pollution. Toxins are also wheat, sugar, stress, not enough time, being yelled at, low self-esteem, guilt, and people criticizing you for things that aren’t your fault.

  16. 16
    Sassafras

    your local Whole Foods

    I worked at one for four years and it was a disease nightmare. Half the employees were always sick because so many of the customers bought into homeopathy, anti-vax, etc. and brought their untreated illnesses in for their shopping trip. Even the employee training heavily pushed the woo and I know a lot of employees were doing detoxes and buying homeopathic treatments instead of going to the doctor. When I left that job I went from getting sick at least once a month to getting sick maybe once a year.

  17. 17
    A. Noyd
    “Detox” is a case of a legitimate medical term being turned into a marketing strategy – all designed to treat a nonexistent condition. In the setting of real medicine, detoxification means treatments for dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol, or poisons, like heavy metals.

    It would be nice, though, to have an agreed-upon term for the process after a period of indulgence where you cut out non-dangerous-but-still-bad-for-you levels of drugs (including alcohol and caffeine), sugar, greasy food, etc. and go back to a better eating routine and sleep schedule. Not with quackery, just with readjustment of intake and routine, which can still generate quite noticeable physiological effects*. The word “detox” would be an apt metaphor for this process if it weren’t for all the quackery promising literal “detox” for the same thing.

    ……..
    *Intense sugar cravings, for instance. Or that super-draggy feeling of going without caffeine.

  18. 18
    Eamon Knight

    Of course, the sidebar ad as I’m reading this reads “Is Your Body Toxic?”, and links to a “test”. Just for lulz, I answered the questions and even gave them my email address. What I got in reply is *not* any commentary on my test results, just some free e-books on detoxifying foods (which I’m not wasting the time to read).

    All in all, a mildly educational experience.

  19. 19
    Lofty

    Money is the root of all evil, therefore I declare money is toxic and I will help detoxify your wallet.

  20. 20
    Michael Heath

    Sassafras writes:

    I worked at [Whole Foods] for four years and it was a disease nightmare. Half the employees were always sick because so many of the customers bought into homeopathy, anti-vax, etc. and brought their untreated illnesses in for their shopping trip. Even the employee training heavily pushed the woo and I know a lot of employees were doing detoxes and buying homeopathic treatments instead of going to the doctor. When I left that job I went from getting sick at least once a month to getting sick maybe once a year.

    Were you getting a flu shot every year when you worked at Whole Foods?

  21. 21
    magistramarla

    cry4turtles@12
    You and me both!
    My hubby has stockpiled eggnog that he found at HEB and the commissary, so we’re still drinking almost nightly rum & eggnogs. I prefer something lighter on my stomach, like wine, so I’ll be glad when his stockpile disappears!
    I may need to hasten that by making an eggnog pumpkin pie.

  22. 22
    jba55

    @17 I’ve always heard purge used for that, as in “binge and purge”.

  23. 23
    A. Noyd

    jba55 (#22)

    I’ve always heard purge used for that, as in “binge and purge”.

    Pretty sure most people associating “binge and purge” with bulimia. Which is definitely not the impression I want to give. And just now I thought maybe “system reboot” would work, but then I googled it and apparently woo-peddlers have already stolen it, the fuckers.

  24. 24
    stripeycat

    @ 17 Healthy living?
    @ 22 Binge-and-purge is also used for the (very harmful) types of eating disorder where you vomit or take high-dose laxatives after meals. Conflating it with a positive behaviour is not a good idea.

    I detox every time I exhale, anyway. Balances my blood acidity a treat. Just keep it in moderation, or you’ll go alkaline. (Why, by the way, do so many woos offer to reduce your blood acidity? I’ve had hyperventilation episodes and they make you feel like excrement!)

  25. 25
    A. Noyd

    Er, “most people associate,” that is.

  26. 26
    uncephalized

    @A. Noyd I think of it as “equilibrating”.

  27. 27
    coragyps

    Zeno – I’d like to see those cleansing salts put in a bowl of hot water without feet and see how dark the solution gets.

  28. 28
    A. Noyd

    uncephalized (#26)

    I think of it as “equilibrating”.

    Ooooooh, that’s a good one.

  29. 29
    Sassafras

    Were you getting a flu shot every year when you worked at Whole Foods?

    Yeah, I was one of the few that did. I still ended up getting sick a lot though.

  30. 30
    Suido

    My friends and I used to regularly detox during uni, though we meant it in the sense of not imbibing any alcohol for approximately a month… though it was uni, so a detox usually finished with a retox of industrial proportions at a particular uni event/party.

    Those were the days. Hard to justify spending cash on woo when the toxins cost so much in the first place.

  31. 31
    Zeno

    Zeno – I’d like to see those cleansing salts put in a bowl of hot water without feet and see how dark the solution gets.

    I asked, Coragyps, and got sniffed at for my trouble. Obviously, water alone couldn’t cause the pure blue-white crystals to turn into nasty brown sludge all by itself! So it wasn’t worth even trying.

    I get no respect. Part of it has to do with my tendency to roll my eyes too often (though under provocation) at family gatherings. No, I don’t believe this guy who always correctly predicts the sex of babies can tell that my niece is carrying a girl. (It was a boy.) No, I don’t think that acai berries from Brazil are a miracle food. (And I doubly don’t believe that all the money raised by sale of the berries goes to feed and house orphans from the favelas.) No, I don’t care what the horoscope says. Etc. Etc. Etc.

  32. 32
    eric

    John @9:

    In mild defense of Bon Appetit, it seems they aren’t selling supplements or treatments but just suggesting that, after the holiday binge of eating and drinking, you might want to spend two weeks without refined starches, most dairy products, processed meats, and refined sugars. They are also suggesting low-alcohol cocktails…. I would classify it as mildly wooish in terminology but not actual woo.

    Nah, that’s not wooish, that’s just standard behavior modification. You eat and drink (alcohol) a lot for several weeks straight, it starts to become habit. You can start unthinkingly going for that second or third glass of wine every night. Best way to break that habit is to stop doing it, and one very good way to stop doing it is to actively commit to some different diet or behavior – “formalize” your change in behavior. Making the same food in the same amounts, opening the same bottles, and just telling yourself you’re going to consume less doesn’t work for a lot of pepole. There’s nothing wooish about that. Its not detoxification because you’re not getting rid of anything toxic (except the alcohol, I guess), but it is probably good for you.

  33. 33
    Moggie

    Zeno:

    Zeno – I’d like to see those cleansing salts put in a bowl of hot water without feet and see how dark the solution gets.

    I asked, Coragyps, and got sniffed at for my trouble. Obviously, water alone couldn’t cause the pure blue-white crystals to turn into nasty brown sludge all by itself! So it wasn’t worth even trying.

    In a way, it isn’t worth trying. Because when they see the solution change colour sans feet, they’ll just say “it’s removing toxins from the air!”

    I’d hate to be the sort of person who responds to the suggestion of a simple and harmless experiment with “nah, why bother?”

  34. 34
    coragyps

    –they’ll just say “it’s removing toxins from the air!”–

    And if you cover it with Glad Wrap, it will be removing toxic plasticizers from that…..

  35. 35
    Doug Little

    Trebuchet @9

    There are also the “cleansing” ones, suggesting you’re carrying around pound upon pound of crusty old poop in your intestines. Same shit, different scam.

    Yeah it’s called Kale it’ll fix that problem right up.

  36. 36
    Abby Normal

    The problem with detoxing is, as we know from homeopathy, as we reduce the concentration of a substance we increase the potency. So by removing toxins we make them that much more powerful. This is why some people report feelings of euphoria while they detox. They’re really just getting drunk on toxins they just made super potent.

    To reduce the effectiveness of toxins you need to inundate your system with more of them. This will dilute their effectiveness and strengthen your body’s natural immunity. Abby Normal brand moonshine has been specially formulated for just that purpose. The blindness lets you know it’s working! Order yours today!

  37. 37
    cry4turtles

    OMG Doug Little is so right. With a even a small portion of Kale (talking adult leaves, not baby), you better be close to a potty. However, once your bod acclimates to it, it actually begins to regulate your system. Keep in mind-KALE OVERDOSE IS POSSIBLE! You don’t want to go there. Just a portion the size of your hand a day, it’s like a buzz.

  38. 38
    Doug Little

    cry4turtles @37,

    I’d say that it’s the best intestinal scrubber I’ve ever eaten. My favorite recipe is to steam it with some chicken broth in a frying pan along with some garlic and onion and then finish it with either red wine or balsamic vinegar.

  39. 39
    Doug Little

    That’s red wine vinegar BTW. Not sure if I should have stuck a comma in there or not. Maybe some of the grammar pedants can correct me.

  40. 40
    democommie

    “You can start unthinkingly going for that second or third glass of wine every night.”

    You mean BOTTLE, yes? {;>)

  41. 41
    A. Noyd

    I wonder how many of the cleanse fanatics would balk at the pre-colonoscopy regimen and call it unnatural, evil “Western” medicine. (Popped into my mind thanks to the mention of kale, which you definitely cannot substitute for the latter.)

    ~*~*~*~*~*~

    Doug Little (#39)

    Not sure if I should have stuck a comma in there or not. Maybe some of the grammar pedants can correct me.

    I dunno that there’s necessarily a rule for that. Sometimes written language just ends up doomed to vagueness in situations where tone of voice would ordinarily convey the intended meaning. (Any written language. Parallel modifiers in Japanese are no picnic, either.) Easiest solution, clarity-wise, is to write it out as “balsamic or red wine vinegar.”

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