Step into any pharmacy and you'll see a fair chunk of retail real estate devoted to supplements and natural health products. They're big business. Over a third of us regularly take supplements.
But how do we know what we're really buying? Can we be sure that product does what it says it does, or worse: that it doesn't do harm?
The answer to both of those questions seems to be: we can't be sure, really.
This was highlighted by the recent withdrawal of several "detox'" tea products, after a Consumer NZ investigation found they contained senna, a laxative requiring Medsafe approval. Overuse of senna can cause harm including liver damage.
It amazes me that the concept of detox is still a thing. I thought we all knew that detox is a crock; a scam perpetrated by marketers with dollar signs in their eyes.
But detox products still abound. When I searched "detox" on one online natural health store, it yielded more than 400 results (including, still, "bowel cleanse" products containing senna).
• 'Detox' teas pulled from shelves following Consumer NZ investigation
• Comment: I drank 'Slimmer's Tea' instead of going to the gym. The results were horrifying
• Experts pour scorn on cup-of-tea weight loss
• 'Diet' drinks that actually aid weight loss
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None of the product blurbs are the same – there is no agreed definition of detox – but they tend to be similarly themed: we accumulate toxins in our bodies over time, and we need to "spring clean" our systems to get things moving again. They use words like "cleanse" and "flush"; they "restore balance" and "support blood cleansing".
For the record, there is no evidence that detox products or diets do anything at all. Our bodies are pretty well equipped to eliminate toxins without assistance; our in-built detox system includes the liver, kidneys, digestive system, skin and lungs.
The things we actually can do to support this system - limit alcohol, get enough sleep, stay hydrated, limit sugar and salt – are things the makers of detox products often also instruct people to do while undertaking a detox. There's rarely any mention of the specific toxins that are being dealt with or the mechanisms by which they're doing it. So it's highly likely that any benefits we might feel are from dietary and lifestyle changes rather than magical herbs.
The bigger picture is that there's no one policing what's being claimed about natural health products. In theory, manufacturers are not supposed to make therapeutic claims. But a random look at the supplement shelf shows there's plenty of products sailing close to the wind. Supplement makers are not required to prove their products do or contain what they say they do. It seems to me I could release Niki's Natural Wonder Pills and as long as they were produced in a food-safe kitchen and I didn't say they cured cancer, I could start selling them tomorrow.
So the Consumer report is just a blip in the road for Cleanse Teatox, one of the products called out for containing unsanctioned laxative medication, and now apparently reformulating.
"Our Cleanse tea has helped thousands of people with bloating, sugar cravings, detoxing and more", the company raves on its Instagram page. "Sold out – sign up here so you don't miss out!"