The weasel words of nutrition

Oh the irony!  We obsess about hygiene and bacteria. We carry little spritzers of sanitizer everywhere, obsessively scrubbing our hands after touching door knobs or chairs or grocery cart handles.  Yet many of us think nothing of popping capsules of allegedly beneficial bacteria everyday, welcoming those bacteria right into our bodies in the hope that those trendy probiotics will result in a happy digestive system and improved health.  We have no way to actually evaluate whether we get any of those promised benefits, but no matter.  “Probiotic” = healthy, end of discussion.

Over the past few months, a spate of articles have raised red flags about those probiotic supplements.  I wrote about a study that linked probiotics to incidence of SIBO and so-called “brain fog”.  Another review expressed alarm at the dismissive lack of attention to adverse side effects in studies on probiotics.  This week another review expanded on those fears.  There is now so much hype that doctors are also on the bandwagon, recommending various brands of probiotics despite the lack of evidence for benefit and/or effectiveness.  These are (supposedly) live active microorganisms; you’d think safety and purity would be important.  But many manufacturers don’t follow basic good manufacturing practices.  Which ones?  It’s impossible to determine that from the label or the appearance of the package or the capsules.

Truthfully, probiotics aren’t the only type of supplement hyped with health halo marketing claims.  Most supplements have some kind of weasely statements intended to persuade consumers to spend money.  While the FDA prohibits outright claims of “cures” or “prevention”, other terms are equally effective at creating an illusion of healthful goodness.  You’ve probably seen some of these:

  1. Boosts:  Such as probiotics “boost digestive health”.
  2. Supports: Such as “vitamin C supports the immune system”.
  3. Maintains: Such as “Adequate calcium maintains bone strength”.
  4. Promotes: such as “vitamin D promotes calcium absorption”
  5. Enhances: such as “Zinc enhances immune function”.

Throw in the word “help” and you’ve got marketing gold.  “Helps support bone strength”, or “helps promote digestive health” or “helps to maintain immunity”.  Who doesn’t want all this healthful help?

These may be technically true statements, but that has nothing to do with whether the supplement in question will actually benefit you.  Supplement marketers can also weasel their way into your good opinion with qualified statements, such as “adequate calcium throughout life may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.”  In other words, Buy this calcium supplement because don’t you want to reduce the risk of osteoporosis???

What you can’t say

Well, supplement labels can’t flat out say “Prevents  X disease”, but they may try to sneak “helps prevent X disease” past the FDA regulators.  There’s that word “help” again.  Use of the word “improves” is equally squirrelly, but adding “may” can fixes the problem: “fiber may improve bowel function” rather than “fiber improves bowel function”.  That way, if the fiber supplement doesn’t help you, well the manufacturer didn’t say it absolutely would help you.

Labels also cannot make claims about “cures”, although there are plenty of ways to imply this without actually using that word.  Plenty of consumers might translate “adequate calcium throughout life may reduce the risk of osteoporosis” as “cures osteoporosis”.  In any event, there’s precious little evidence that any nutrient or food component “cures” any disease, so hopefully supplement marketers are savvy enough to avoid making that mistake.  Why invite problems when there are so many other ways to cleverly string words together to create the illusion of a health benefit.

So what should you do?

Well, for one, don’t buy a supplement because the label makes some claim.  Don’t buy a supplement because you read/heard some testimonial from a website/celebrity.  You should have done your homework about potential benefits of a supplement.  Otherwise why are you considering it?  Unfortunately, as with probiotics, you may be considering it because your physician advised it, even though your physician isn’t any better informed than the next person.  I’d suggest that when it comes to supplements, however impressive the health halo, individual consumers need to base a purchasing decision on more than just a glossy label claim or an internet testimonial.

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