By Niel Vaughan
The desire for health and longevity is a crucial evolutionary driver, and it’s being used to exploit us.
Big business sells false promises in the form of nutraceutical supplements and health foods in an opaque, poorly-regulated industry. How do they do it? With doubt wrapped up in false logic, using dubious claims that seem sound when taken at face value. Not to mention their claims of being “all-natural” and side-effect-free. If I take Omega-3 supplements they might just give me risk-free health and longevity. Who really knows, but why not?
Walk into any modern pharmacy and behind the counter you’ll see medicine that has passed the scrutiny of clinical science. Meanwhile, shelves and shelves throughout the store contain myriad alternative supplements with “mights” and “may’s” on their labels. These products have not met the high scientific standards we expect from pharmaceuticals. But where money can be made, rules will bend.
Although Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration is meant to regulate unscientific health claims on consumer goods, they can merely make a tiny dent in the behemoth that is the nutraceutical industry. From small scale producers hawking “probiotic” kombucha (kombucha is not probiotic) and orange juice that will “boost your immune system”, to huge pill corporations like Suisse, the open food market is a veritable alternative free-for-all.
Part of the reason is that the field of nutrition science is plagued by historical blunders, based on the fact that food is notoriously difficult to study. There are a few reasons for this. Naturally-produced foods consist of large combinations of compounds, and their interactions with other foods in the diet are complex. Science is about distilling and moving towards a singularity. Food is always in combination; think of the chemistry of wine, pasta and garlic, for instance. In terms of the multitudinous number of combinations, we simply do not yet have the models, frameworks or computation to charter a narrative from hard data.
Nutraceutical and health food businesses target the food shopping basket. Not the disease or illness aisles- it’s safer to hide in the margins of doubt. Maybe omega-3 and lycopene help with brain and cell development and fight prostate cancer. But the standards of clinical and empirical proof have proven too high for most nutraceuticals to get the scientific stamp of approval.
Why do we scoff at marginally higher prices of good healthy food, but not blink when shelling out hundreds of dollars for unproven dietary supplements? When it comes to our health, why would we rather listen to an uneducated chef like Pete Evans than to public health nutrition policy based on best-evidence research? It all comes down to predatory marketing.
Let’s open our eyes and not blindly pursue health and longevity, which have complex factors working together for an end result. Throw out those supplements. Eat real food. Eat seasonal local produce. Mostly plants. Move a lot. Get involved in your community. These are scientifically proven (and free) ways to live long and prosper!
I would like the thank Dr. Miin Chan (MBBS, BMedSc, PhD) @drchans for her insight and help in writing this article.
Niel Vaughan is a journalist and web developer who reads and writes on the intersections of Food, Science and People.