ScienceBlogs likes to take on quacks. Orac, over at Respectful Insolence, does it every Friday and does it well. It’s a good project and I’m not against it. But there are a lot of quacks around that aren’t called quacks. They have corporate suits and research departments. And advertising and marketing departments. Big companies. Like Nestle.
Recently a team of scientists in the UK decided to take them on:
[Physicist Jennifer] Lardge is one of an informal group of scientific researchers who had met through various workshops sponsored by the UK charity, Sense About Science. Over the past several months, the researchers started chatting about all the bothersome ways that certain advertisers… well, advertised.
The researchers were particularly irritated by companies that used scientific-sounding claims to back their products and market them to the public. Like Lardge, several of the researchers took it upon themselves to call up some of the companies whose advertisements they’d noticed and ask some more questions about the scientific research that went — or didn’t — go into them.
Both the US and UK allow supplement products to be marketed without explanation of scientific efficacy, but they still have to abide by truth in advertising rules.
“I’m increasingly annoyed by the way companies use scientific-sounding language to make the unproven benefit of their products sound credible,” wrote Harriet Ball, a biologist at Kings College London, in a report released Wednesday (October 10) by Sense About Science.
The report, called “There goes the science bit…” is a transcript of 11 conversations that researchers had with customer service people at companies peddling “Aerobic Oxygen” to increase oxygen levels in the blood, “Salt Lamps” that protect from electromagnetic waves, cosmetics that fend off more electromagnetic waves, and other abounding scientific claims in ingredient lists on supermarket shelves.
Ball called Nestlé about their Ski Yoghurts, which she had noticed had been recently re-marketed as containing “Activ8″ — a complex of eight B vitamins that, according to Nestlé, optimized energy release. She was put through to the nutritionist at Nestlé, who explained that Activ8 components “get the optimum nutrition out of your food and direct it to the correct areas.”
“Is it also helpful to people who’ve got a good diet anyway, and have enough B vitamins already in their diet?” asked Ball.
“Well,” the nutritionist responded, “if people have got enough B vitamins in their diet already, what it’ll do, it’ll optimize that.”
“What do you mean optimize?”
“Well, it will get the most out of your diet anyway, by using the vitamins and minerals that’s already in your healthy diet.’
“If you put an excess of vitamins into people’s bodies,” Ball noted, “they don’t really use them, they just get excreted.”
“Yeah, they get passed away in the normal way. If your body’s got enough of the vitamins it needs, they won’t do you any harm, they just get passed away in the normal natural way,” was the response.
Ball asked if Nestlé had published any evidence supporting the Activ8 vitamin complex, but they hadn’t. (The Scientist)
I picked up a magazine at random. Full page ad for RoC Retinaol Correxion, Deep Wrinkle Serum. Serum? It promised women would get ten years back in their skin appearance. Clinically tested. Right. On the page opposite a sidebar from the same company: Do our hands give away your age? it asked. “A breakthrough way to reveal younger-looking hands with Pure Active Retinol, the #1 dematologist recommended age-fighting ingredient that’s clinically proven to reduce the signs of aging in just 4 weeks.”
Then there’s the Quaker Smart Heart Challenge. “Three grams of soluble fiber daily from oatmeal may actually help reduce heart disase risk as part of a heart healthy diet [asterisk here that this means diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat. It also says that one serving only has 2 grams of soluble fiber. Given the diet, I'd say whatever its benefits, the 2 grams of soluble fiber in a bowl of Quaker Oatmeal isn't much of a factor. The ad copy goes on . . . ]. That’s because oatmeal . . . helps soak up cholestrol, actually removing some of it from your body.” The whole point of this ad is that eating Quaker Oatmeal will give you a meaningful reduction in your risk of heart attack. I have a hard time believing this, but if you do, give me a call. I have a 1995 Volvo 940 looking for a good home.
Then there’s the ad by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center: “Cancer. Where you’re treated first can make all the difference.” A picture of a healthy looking middle aged male: “Four years ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My doctors said I’d get the best chance for the best outcome at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. So I picked up the phone and made the most important call of my life. Etc.” Sloan-Kettering is a good cancer center. I did some of my training there. But this ad is dishonest. It implies that if you are treated elsewhere you won’t have as good a chance to live.
There are a lot of charlatans about. I’m not sure we should be putting so much energy in sniping at the marginal players and ignore the big fish. But maybe it’s just me.