Dietary supplements have mushroomed into a 40 billion-dollar industry, comprising more than 80,000 products (and growing).1 As a result, we are often bombarded with endless information on how to achieve “perfect” health. A simple Google search will yield many solutions while promoting anything from ‘superfoods’ to special diets. Over the years, companies have become very clever with product claims in order to deceive consumers. In this Junk Science series, we’ll cover how to sift through junk science to detect which claims are sound and accurate.
What is Junk Science?
The term junk science is defined as untested or unproven theories that may be presented as scientific fact. It includes faulty scientific information or research.2 Flawed statements are often made regarding human health, environmental safety, or the benefits/risks associated with certain products.3 Let’s discuss a few red flags that typically indicate false nutrition information:
- Guarantees Unrealistic Results
You’ve probably seen a headline similar to, “Lose 15 pounds in 3 days with no exercise!” or maybe a diet touting claims that you can eat all the junk food you want while losing weight. Sound too good to be true? While these claims have a magical way of grabbing people’s attention, they’re often loaded with false promises. In reality, losing too much weight too fast increases our risk of muscle loss, nutrient deficiencies, low energy and more.4
- Food Fads
When a company or product recommends completely eliminating a food group, they may be putting you in danger of also removing essential nutrients from your diet. Examples of this may include broad claims such as: “carbohydrates are bad”. A headline may read “10 Foods You Should Never Eat Again”. This is used as a scare tactic to tempt consumers into the trap of food fads and “special” diets.
- Miracle Cures
Promises for a cure are always tempting. But brands using claims that a product can prevent, treat, or cure diseases, are deceptive and inaccurate. Not only is this illegal, but these products are not regulated, meaning there can be unknown serious side effects. Unfortunately, this results in consumers being cheated out of their time, money and even health.
- Misleading Health Claims
These claims are often intentionally misleading to prompt consumers to believe a product is healthier than it is. A food may claim to be low in sodium, but not reveal its very high calorie content. One example includes a popular snack bar company on the market. Their breakfast bar claims it provides fiber plus antioxidants in each serving, leading you to believe its guilt-free. A closer look at the label reveals 30+ ingredients, high sugar levels, and several added preservatives, making it more of a dessert instead of a healthy snack as advertised.6
Junk Science Is Everywhere
Junk science isn’t just found online, there are many ways it’s used to skew opinion. The media can use clickbait headlines to sensationalize or increase its audience. Look for information that’s referenced with cited sources and seek out multiple perspectives.
It’s always important to be aware and educated on ways to detect hidden motives in company claims and advertising.If a product is not purchased from a proven, reputable source – there’s a chance it could be contaminated with toxic chemicals such as lead and mercury. Businesses may resort to using misleading claims for promotion in an attempt to gain the edge over competitors, like illegally selling a product under the claim it can cure disease.
We also can’t forget about the role celebrities and influencers play in promoting fraudulent claims. In the past, high profile celebrities and influencers promoted intravenous vitamin infusions with claims that they can boost energy, immunity, and hydration. Still prevalent today, these types of products can be dangerous because they don’t take into account that nutrient requirements differ for everyone. Overdosing on vitamins can cause potentially harmful effects in the body, and these claims are often endorsed on unproven products in order to help them sell.7
How Do I Evaluate Information?
Accurate information is science-based, peer-reviewed, and replicable.8 With an abundance of knowledge right at our fingertips, it’s not always easy to determine which information is valid, but there are strategies you can use to separate fact from fiction. Some of these include:
- Consider the Source
A source is credible when it’s trustworthy. Many sources you find online may not be verified. Check out well-respected, peer-reviewed journals with high standards when it comes to determining which data is published.
- Look Out for Buzzwords
Carefully review the quality of the information, more than once. Look out for any exaggerated or unfounded claims. Is the company using guilt or fear to sell a product? Beware of sources that rely on terms such as “many people believe”, or “recent studies show”, without backing up these claims with science-based evidence. Buzzwords are often used to play on readers’ emotions.
- Level of Known Bias
Consider, what does the company have to gain from releasing this information? Was the study sponsored by another company or group? Studies can often be funded by professional organizations,8 so it’s important to take a look at the author’s credentials and affiliations. Bottom line, if a reputable organization doesn’t stand behind the data, neither should you.
- Scope & Consistency
The more vast the body of research, the more assured you can feel about a theory. If possible, analyze research that dates back some year rather than brand new studies. Furthermore, look for consistency across the board. This means that studies arrive at the same conclusion rather than opposite ones. An oversimplified conclusion can point to a study only conducted on one particular group of individuals.
The best way to ensure safety and quality is to shop as an informed consumer. Many people are beginning to educate themselves on the connection between diet and health, adopting more autonomy over their health and nutritional decisions. As consumers explore sources such as websites, television, advertisements, friends, family, social media, and more – it’s crucial to know how to detect fraudulent claims in junk science. Evaluate all sources of information before you buy and always consult a health professional when adding supplements and products to your daily regimen.
- Locker, Melissa. FDA Supplement Crackdown: These 12 Companies Warned over Dubious Claims. 11 Feb. 2019, www.fastcompany.com/90305275/fda-supplement-crackdown-these-12-companies-warned-over-dubious-claims.
- Junk Science. www.dictionary.com/browse/junk-science.
- How Can I Find Credible Sources? 2017, paperpile.com/g/find-credible-sources/.
- Raman, Ryan. Is It Bad to Lose Weight Too Quickly? 29 Oct. 2017, www.healthline.com/nutrition/losing-weight-too-fast.
- Lang, Rebecca. “The Importance of Quality Supplements.” Specialty Natural Medicine Mukilteo Primary Care and Specialty Care, www.specialtynaturalmedicine.com/the-importance-of-quality-supplements/.
- Heyne, Alexander. About. 31 Oct. 2017, modernhealthmonk.com/29-misleading-food-labels/.
- Junk Science. www.dictionary.com/browse/junk-science.
- Bellows, L., and R. Moore. “Nutrition Misinformation: How to Identify Fraud and Misleading Claims.” Colostate.edu, 7 Mar. 2016, extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/nutrition-food-safety-health/nutrition-misinformation-how-to-identify-fraud-and-misleading-claims-9-350/.