Something must be wrong these days with the Chicago Tribune. I’ve complained about its recent tendency to publish credulous tripe about “alternative” medicine or sympathetic articles about alternative medicine, usually in the form of columns by the ever woo-friendly Julie Deardorff, but also in the form of a truly dumb (at least about medicine) columnist by the name of Dennis Byrne, who promotes bad science claiming links between abortion or birth control and breast cancer. Clearly, in the more than eight years since I lived in Chicago, things have gone downhill at the old Tribune.

This week, things have become even weirder. Julie Deardorff actually published a sensible, skeptical article about the “hydration kick” being pushed by Coke and other manufacturers of “fitness drinks” (like Gatorade and others), while another section of the Tribune, reporter Lauren Viera has taken over Julie’s usual duties of writing the fawning articles about dubious health practices, in this case, “The Master Cleanser“:

It sounds extreme, but spending the first week of January cleaning the pipes has become my healthy resolution of choice. A few years ago, a friend lent me her copy of a straightforward instruction manual of sorts on how to fast correctly and safely.

Named for the lemonade-like elixir derived in 1941 by dietary advocate Stanley Burroughs, “The Master Cleanser” (Burroughs Books, 1976) is a 50-page guide to ridding one’s body of all kinds of toxins — likely to be in excess just after the holiday season. It’s a how-to (and why), replete with recipes, for restoring the digestive system to visible repair, preparing it for a fresh start, and then easing it back into a healthy eating routine — ideally paving the way for a more nutritious diet and, ultimately, a healthier way of life.

As the brief recipe and description listed in the article reveals, The Master Cleanser is nothing more than an old-fashioned colon cleanse that is claimed to “detoxify” the body, and it’s about as useless:

Burroughs’ elixir, which consists of 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of Grade B maple syrup, a pinch of cayenne pepper and 8 ounces of purified water — should be consumed 6 to 12 times daily; plus a glass of sea-salt water each morning and a laxative tea each night. He advises sticking to the elixir/laxative routine for at least 10 days for the cleanse to be fully effective; then, ease back into healthy solid foods over at least three days, starting with fresh orange juice, then raw fruits and vegetables.

Yup. Nothing more than a colon and liver cleanse.

Naturally, as is mandatory for such shoddy journalism, there is the sole skeptical voice, this time in the form of a dietician named Dawn Jackson Blatner, who dutifully points out that fasting and existing on mainly lemon juice and maple syrup for days on end is not a good way to lose weight and that the body has a perfectly fine method of self-detoxification in the form of the liver, kidneys, skin, and lungs, thank you very much. Just as naturally and expected for this sort of “journalism,” the skeptical voice is discounted:

Then again, the Master Cleanser was never intended to be used as a weight-loss aid in the first place. It’s a fast, the purpose of which, Burroughs writes, is “to dissolve and eliminate toxins and congestion that have formed in any part of the body.”

None of which it does, as I explained ad nauseum before. Indeed, these sorts of cleanses are such obvious quackery that I even featured them in not one, but two editions of Your Friday Dose of Woo. It particularly resembles the “liver cleanse,” which frequently includes lemon juice as part of its constituents. But, hey, who needs to listen to those pesky scientists when you have testimonials, right? Testimonials such as one by the reporter herself:

Positive effects are noticeable. Burroughs derived the elixir to help cure minor (and some major) ailments, and I’ve experienced all kinds of perks, from clearer skin to sharper concentration. The negative effects? Hunger and irritability, but these tend to dissipate after about the third day. Thereafter, I’ve experienced an amazing sense of Zen: patience, serenity and peace of mind. And, of course, you will lose some weight during the Master Cleanser, most of which will return once the fast is broken, if you do it right.

Then again, the Master Cleanser isn’t about weight loss. It’s about starting the year off with a clean slate … in the form of a flushed digestive system.

Can you say “confirmation bias“? Sure, I knew you could. Can you say “credulous, stupid reporter?”

Sure, I knew you could.


  1. #1 Dangerous Bacon
    January 7, 2008

    “And, of course, you will lose some weight during the Master Cleanser, most of which will return once the fast is broken, if you do it right.”

    Golly. Once you stop fasting, you’ll gain back weight IF YOU DO IT RIGHT???

    What happens if you foul it up? You gain 50 pounds? Keep the lost weight off permanently? That’s quite a spread.

    Inquiring minds vote this the front-runner for 2008’s Dumbest Quote Of The Year.

  2. #2 Jesse
    January 7, 2008

    There is a great television series called ‘The Truth About Food’ ( on Discovery Health. It’s hosted by Dr. Mehmet Oz and seeks to study a lot of urban legends and folklore about different foods and their role in health.

    There was a great episode where they took 2 dozen women who had just finished some University exams and had been partying for about 10 days straight (i.e., lots and lots and lots of booze, bad food and little sleep).

    The women were split into two groups: a control group and a ‘detox diet’ group. They had a panel of liver enzymes measured to see the function and levels of enzymes and breakdown products (I’m a PhD student, not an MD student or MD, so forgive my vague explanation) and had samples of stool and urine taken.

    The ‘detox diet’ group followed one of these classic ‘detaox diets, eating nothing but vegetables (mostly shakes/smooties, blech) and just drank water.

    The control group ate sensibly: balanced diet with a little wine and some coffee (with sugar!), had starches like breads, some lean meat and salads with dressing.

    At the end of the trial (7 days? 10 days? 14 days? I can’t remember) the same measurements of liver enzymes and from urine and stool were taken.

    There was NO difference between the groups whatsoever. Plus, the women on the ‘detox diet’ were miserable from eating bad tasting shakes.

    Detox? How about just eating a balanced diet, drinking water and taking a multivitamin. It’s a lot more sensible.

  3. #3 Hypatia
    January 7, 2008

    Just wondering, what happens if you use grade A maple syrup?

  4. #4 Dangerous Bacon
    January 7, 2008

    No, you need to use “virgin” maple syrup.

  5. #5 Sastra
    January 7, 2008

    I thought Dr. Mehmet Oz was a fond purveyor of woo himself. If that’s who I think it is, rather ironic, him testing health myths.

  6. #6 Joshua Zelinsky
    January 7, 2008

    I wouldn’t get your hopes up about Deardorff. There’s an obvious reason that she would write a semi-skeptical piece about the hydration thing; Coke is a big company. Deardorff seems to be one of those people who can’t resist going counter to whatever the perceived establishment says even when that establishment is backed by evidence and experiments.

  7. #7 Narc
    January 7, 2008

    Orac, great post as usual, but your audience is probably prediposed to reality-based thinking. Please, write a letter to the editor of the Tribune so this sort of quackery can be exposed to the same people that probably read the original article in the first place.

  8. #8 Phil
    January 7, 2008

    Ever since the morons in Chicago bought the L.A.Times, they have been destroying it by amateurish use of fonts and crackpot righties on the commentary page. I am not surprised in the least that they have no inkling of the scientific method.

  9. #9 Dangerous Bacon
    January 8, 2008

    “Master Cleanser” actually is a pretty good name for a rapper.

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