Summer is detox season, but beware misleading health advice.
Every summer, we are bombarded with advertisements, editorials, and advertorials chastising us for all the toxins we have poisoned ourself with by indulging in fruit mince pies and Christmas ham. But it’s okay, we are told, for there is a solution to this toxic overload. And that solution is…
Sound advice and playing to our holiday guilt gets a foot in the door. Eat your greens, shed those Christmas kilos, make a New Year’s resolution to avoid toxins. They may even appeal to the rationalist in us: your kidneys and liver are your detox organs, but they need support to do their job optimally.
Next comes the sale. They just so happen to know the perfect thing you can do to detox. Their dietary supplement, their green juice, their herbal tea. This is the secret to ridding your body of toxins, we are told.
But these products, so often forgotten by March, rarely stand up to closer inspection. No evidence (although perhaps some testimonials) are offered in support, specific toxins are rarely mentioned, and claims about what the products can do are often restricted to vague claims such as “support your body’s natural detoxification process”. Such ambiguity is necessary to avoid being held accountable for specific claims.
In practice, the current regulations allow for claims like “supports your body’s natural detoxification process” to be made without supporting evidence. If a product is said to “support” something that happens already in a healthy person, and there’s no evidence it has harmful side effects, the regulators will tend to steer clear of it.
This hasn’t stopped action being taken against detox claims. In the past two years, there have been 12 complaints against detox ads laid with the Advertising Standards Authority. In every single case, the advertisement was found to be misleading.
So who can we trust? In the case of advertisements and advertorials it’s clear that the company behind them has something to gain from us buying their products. Conflicts of interest are important, and in those contexts they are clear. But can we trust other sources of information to be accurate and free from this bias?
If conflicts of interest are hidden from us, we can be misled. A well-informed society depends heavily on the press, and it’s in our best interest for mainstream media to report without having undeclared conflicts of interest. One of the Press Council’s principles describes why conflicts of interest are an important consideration for the press:
To fulfil their proper watchdog role, publications must be independent and free of obligations to their news sources. They should avoid any situations that might compromise such independence.
The New Zealand Herald recently published a column giving health advice about detoxing from an expert, but didn’t adequately declare the author’s conflict of interest. In truth, the columnist makes a living from the sale of the exact products they were promoting in the article, but you wouldn’t know unless you did some digging.
The column was published on Sunday November 29, just before the start of detox season. It was headlined “Detoxing: What you need to know” and clearly marked as the opinion of Sandra Clair:
Sandra is described briefly before and after the article:
Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.
Sandra Clair is the founder of Artemis (artemis.co.nz) offering New Zealanders a premium range of traditional plant medicine products. She is one of New Zealand’s most highly qualified health professionals in her field, as a Swiss trained medical herbalist and a medical anthropologist (M.A.). Sandra is currently completing a PhD in health science at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with the Chair for Natural Medicine of the University of Zürich, Switzerland.
She’s clearly framed as an expert in the field she’s writing about, rather than someone with a conflict of interest. So it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if someone reading her article about everything they “need to know” about detoxing would take her advice seriously. But let’s take a closer look at the advice she gives.
The article starts off giving some sound advice, appealing to the sceptic in us that knows “quick fix” health products are often too good to be true:
At this time of year, detox diets and miracle products spring up like brightly coloured daisies. Many of them promise quick weight loss and eternal youth at the drop of a hat, or a pill.
It is easy to get swayed by enticing marketing when trying to find an approach to rejuvenate or drop those annoying extra kilos.
However, most of these products and fad diets are neither successful nor sustainable, and their harsh, artificial composition can strip the body of essential nutrients resulting in a worse state of health.
So far, I’d been nodding along to her article. She’s got her foot in the door, and it’s not too long before she moves on to the sale. According to Ms Clair, the secret to detoxing is drinking two types of herbal tea, and making this a lifestyle change instead of something you do for just a brief duration:
In more serious health issues it is advisable to follow a targeted cleansing regime for a minimum of eight weeks, as this is the minimum time it takes for the liver to restore and cleanse deeper layers. By the end of that time most people find it easy to incorporate better choices into their daily lives for long-term health.
The easiest way to support your body’s daily detoxification is to take a medicinal tea with bitter liver herbs before breakfast. Liquid plant medicine is perfect for detoxification since water has additional flushing benefits over and above the therapeutic ingredients of the tea.
Follow this with a kidney cleansing medicinal tea mid-morning to complete the flush by removing the released water-soluble toxins. Golden rod, horsetail, birch leaves, nettle and raspberry are traditionally used to improve kidney function and help clear the body of water-soluble metabolic wastes and toxins, excess sodium, uric acid and inflammatory by-products. I call this combination your daily ‘internal shower’.
At first glance this just looks like advice from an expert in the field, not a marketing pitch for specific products. But not all is as it seems.
As mentioned in Ms Clair’s bio, she is the founder of Artemis Natural Healthcare. And it just so happens that Artemis sells a “Liver Detox Tea” and a “Kidney Cleanse Tea”. The wording in her article seems like it could easily have been tailored specifically to match the marketing for these teas, listing their ingredients and using terms such as “kidney cleansing medicinal tea” and “medicinal tea with bitter liver herbs”.
Surprise surprise, if you search for either of those phrases from the article on Google in a New Zealand context, the first results are for Artemis’ products:
I found about these products when the December catalogue for Health 2000, which is New Zealand’s natural health retailer and has been in trouble in the past for misleading claims about toxins, was released on the Wednesday after the Herald article. It advertises Artemis’ “Liver Detox Tea”, which prompted me to check further and led to me finding out about their “Kidney Cleanse Tea” through their website.
I sent a message to the New Zealand Herald’s online editors the day after I found this out, to express my concern about this conflict of interest and about the misleading content of the article. It’s been over a week now, and disappointingly I’ve had no response from them. You can read my message at the bottom of this article.
The morning after I sent that message, the New Zealand Herald was distributed along with a copy of the Health 2000 December catalogue. The same catalogue advertising one of the products Ms Clair was surreptitiously promoting in her Herald column only days earlier.
As far as I’m aware the New Zealand Herald has yet to acknowledge the full extent of this conflict of interest, but I hope that hearing about this will make you think twice before trusting detox advice. Without taking the time to look behind the curtain, it can be hard to tell if someone stands to gain financially from the advice they’re giving.
As always, if you think a health claim might not be all it claims to be, the best approach is to ask for evidence. If all you’re given is anecdotes, it’s probably not trustworthy. In the case of detox advice, asking for specifics on which toxins they’re talking about can also be a good approach.
It seems appropriate for me to state here that I have no conflicts of interest to declare. All I’ll gain if you take my advice to be sceptical of misleading detox claims is peace of mind.
Here is the letter I sent to the New Zealand Herald’s online editors:
Earlier this week I read an opinion piece published on your website by Sandra Clair, entitled “Detoxing: What you need to know” (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=11552384)
I’m concerned that the article contains misleading content and that her substantial conflict of interest is not made adequately clear to readers.
As noted at the bottom of the article, the author is the founder of Artemis, a for-profit business that sells herbal healthcare products. One of the products this company sells, advertised in the latest Health 2000 catalogue which was released this week, is “Liver Detox Tea”. You can see it advertised on page 22 of the catalogue online here: http://www.health2000.co.nz/december-2015_1268
In Ms Clair’s article, she says:
“The easiest way to support your body’s daily detoxification is to take a medicinal tea with bitter liver herbs before breakfast. Liquid plant medicine is perfect for detoxification since water has additional flushing benefits over and above the therapeutic ingredients of the tea.”
This very closely echoes the marketing for her business’ “Liver Detox Tea” product.
Artemis also sells a “Kidney Cleanse Tea” to “Flush those toxins away”. According to the Artemis website it contains Birch leaves, Golden Rod, Horsetail, Nettle, and Raspberry leaf. In her article, Ms Clair also says:
“Follow this with a kidney cleansing medicinal tea mid-morning to complete the flush by removing the released water-soluble toxins. Golden rod, horsetail, birch leaves, nettle and raspberry are traditionally used to improve kidney function and help clear the body of water-soluble metabolic wastes and toxins, excess sodium, uric acid and inflammatory by-products. I call this combination your daily ‘internal shower’.”
This too very closely echoes the marketing for her business’ “Kidney Cleanse Tea” product.
It seems fairly unlikely that the timing of her article and the increased marketing of “detox” tea products by her business are a coincidence. It is absolutely in the interest of your readers to be made aware of her conflict of interest involving these products, and it does not seem to me like this has been done adequately.
Furthermore, I’m concerned that much of the information presented in her column is likely to be misleading. It is absolutely true, as she says in the opening paragraphs, that “detoxification” is the role of your kidneys and liver. However, the article is written in such a way as to imply, without any supporting evidence as far as I am aware, that products like the “Liver Detox Tea” and “Kidney Cleanse Tea” sold by her company are able to provide health benefits such as “improved immune system” and “better circulatory and lymphatic function”.
I’m also concerned that the article advises readers to “Reduce pharmaceutical drug intake”. As the conflict of interest statement refers to Ms Clair as “one of New Zealand’s most highly qualified health professionals in her field”, I am concerned that this advice might be taken seriously by some readers and as reliable health advice, and result in some degree of harm.
I think we are all aware that summer is the time of year where businesses in the “natural health” industry most strongly market “detox” products. As the chair of the Society for Science Based Healthcare, I see a significant amount of misleading advertising for these products, particularly at this time of year.
Over the past two years, 12 advertisements about detox products have been complained about to the Advertising Standards Authority, and in every one of those cases the advertisement was found to be misleading. Many more of these advertisements will surely have been similarly misleading, but will not have attracted formal complaints.
I understand that opinion pieces such as this may not be bound by the same requirements for accuracy and balance as non-editorial content, but I hope that you nevertheless do care about and understand the importance of the accuracy of content presented as expert health advice.
I hope you will discuss these matters with Ms Clair, and ensure that her conflict of interest is stated much more clearly if you publish future articles from her.
Here’s the follow-up message I sent the next morning:
Further to my message last night regarding your columnist Sandra Clair’s conflict of interest, this morning I see that the New Zealand Herald was distributed with the December Health 2000 catalogue.
This is the catalogue that I raised as a concern due to the fact that it advertises Ms Clair’s “Liver Detox Tea” product.
The fact that the New Zealand Herald is distributing marketing for one of the products lauded in a Herald article makes it all the more important that the nature of this conflict of interest is made clear to readers.
I hope you will treat this matter seriously.