I think there is a part of the human brain which is hardwired to believe “silver bullet” scams and miracle cures. Perhaps it’s because we’re lazy; perhaps it’s because we all want to be in the special circle of people who have figured out the answers (my husband’s theory); sometimes, it’s because we’re desperate and conventional medicine hasn’t offered us a good solution. Regardless, whether it’s medicine, weight loss, or nutrition, humans tend to prefer the simple “solutions” over the slow, patient processes which are generally required to affect real and lasting change. In spite of this tendency, we can train our brains to evaluate these shiny objects a little more critically and avoid being scammed.
Because this is a food safety/science blog, we’ll focus on the food and supplements side of things. Without being a food scientist, how can we decide whether to run out and buy a supplement or start eating a food?
First, think through the claims. What are they offering? The old adage that “If it seems to good to be true, it probably is” is crucial here. The more sweeping the claims, the less likely they are to be real. If a food or supplement is going to single-handedly balance your microbiome, give you the energy of a 22-year old, and erase your wrinkles, it’s more than a little fishy. So what constitutes “sweeping”?
- Food/supplement positively affects multiple unrelated body systems. In the example above, it would be possible that changing your gut microbiome could affect your mental health, but it’s very unlikely it’d erase your wrinkles. Or to give another, most drugs have multiple affects, but the side affects aren’t usually fun.
- Offers a shortcut to something known to be difficult (like weight loss).
- Works on a variety of unrelated conditions (Lyme disease and high blood sugar)
- Offers nebulous sciencey-sounding claims (e.g., “balance gut microbiome” “balance your blood sugar” “cleanse toxins”). You can google these kinds of terms and add “scientific validity” or “science behind” to see what comes up; sometimes this can alert you to a scam.
- Only dubious sources* sources come up when you google this claim
- Claims that are vague or hard to prove. “Increases energy” is one of these. Energy fluctuates so much from day to day that determining what affected it is hard. Further, harmful things can also raise your energy (high levels of caffeine, for instance, or methamphetamines).
Second, look for is a mechanism. If a supplement truly has a biological effect, you should be able to google “XXX mode of action” and get some reliable sources* on how it works. To be sure, we don’t fully understand how all medicines work (especially psychiatric meds), but we have a reasonable idea or we’ve studied them long enough in scientific trials to know they do.
Third, see if there are any clinical trials (for supplements or their active ingredients). You should be able to find one by googling “clinical trial [supplement x]”. These clinical trials should have been done by a third party, not the company itself (conflict of interest) and should be published by someone reliable (a scientific conference or journal, not the company website–though being on the company website is fine, as long as it links to somewhere reliable).
In summary: pause, google, and evaluate. It’s literally what I do whenever someone recommends a supplement to me (though I mostly do it out of curiosity).
*Reliable sources: NIH, NCBI, FDA, Mayo clinic, scholarly journals, .gov or .edu sites.
*Not reliable: [suppelementX].com, .com or .org sites, blogs without sources, webmd, livestrong/other “healthy living” websites.
*Varying reliability: news articles