Have you heard one of these claims – “garlic cures coronavirus,” “anti-viral foods to build immunity and keep disease away,” “scientifically-formulated fat burner,” or “removes waste products from your body”? These are just a few examples of bogus claims propagated on the internet, by your hairdresser, in TV infomercials, or even by a friend or family member. Unsuspecting consumers (often older adults- the target of a large portion of healthcare fraud) are spending billions of dollars a year on fraudulent health products, according to Stephen Barrett, M.D., head of Quackwatch Inc., a non-profit that combats health fraud.
Being able to discern a fraudulent claim from a reliable one can be tricky. It’s just about impossible to keep up with all new research, fad, hope, warning or cure scams out there. You can however, arm yourself with a toolkit for deciphering reliable nutrition and health information.
Consider the following top 10 red flags for questionable claims:
- Statements that promise a quick fix. Complex medical problems very rarely have simple and rapid solutions.
- Dire warnings of danger from a single food, regimen, or product. Remember that fear can be a potent motivator. Investigate further rather than jump to conclusions.
- Declarations that sound too good to be true. The folks marketing these products are savvy. They will use terms like cure, miracle, and breakthrough but have little to no evidence to back them up. The old adage still holds true, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
- Simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex study. There are many details involved in a complex study and omitting them can affect your ability to judge how the study could relate to you and your nutritional needs. For example, did the study involve animals or humans, men or women, different age groups, economic status, race, activity level, etc?
- Recommendations based on a single study. One study makes a good headline for a news story but makes little sense for your health. Solid health recommendations are made from many studies in which evidence accumulates and points to one result.
- One product does it all! According to the FDA: “Be suspicious of products that claim to cure a wide range of unrelated diseases–particularly serious diseases, such as cancer and diabetes. No product can treat every disease and condition, and for many serious diseases, there are no cures, only therapies to help manage them. Cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and other serious diseases are big draws because people with these diseases are often desperate for a cure and willing to try just about anything.”
- Lists of “good” and “bad” foods. Variety is the spice of life and ensures a healthy diet. A regimen that excludes foods or food groups can be dangerous because what you don’t eat can affect your health too. All foods can fit unless of course you have a specific health condition and your health care provider has advised you to avoid certain foods.
- Non-science based testimonials supporting the product, often from celebrities or “satisfied customers.” Testimonials may be genuine or made up- it’s difficult to verify. Often the persons offering these testimonials are paid for their contribution.
- Stating that research is “currently underway,” which means that there is no current research.
- Claims that identify a problem and encourages the purchase of a product to solve it. The seller is probably more interested in your money than your health.
You may wonder: What’s the problem with trying something that may help? Misinformation can have several negative consequences, including the delay of needed medical care, nutrient toxicities and dangerous food-drug interactions, potential exposure to toxic components, and financial loss. Remember that the FDA does not regulate claims on products so you must be your own advocate.
So how can you protect yourself? Look for health and nutrition information from reliable sources such as scientific and professional associations (ie the American Heart Association or American Diabetes Association), government agencies, the Extension Service, nutrition departments at accredited colleges and universities, nutrition departments at your local hospital or medical centers, reputable consumer organizations, and non-profits like Age Well.
Questions about how we can help you age well and work towards heart health? Call Age Well’s Helpline at 1-800-642-5119.
Written by Age Well’s Registered Dietitian, Brigitte Harton, RD, CD, NBC-HWC. You can reach Brititte at [email protected].