Alternative medicine, like all good marketing, is largely about creating a narrative. Once you have sold people on the narrative, products essentially market themselves. That narrative has been evolving for literally centuries, although it seems to have accelerated with the advent of mass media and now the internet. It is optimized to push emotional buttons in order to sell products.

There are countless examples available on the internet, with many peaking above the crowd for their 15 minutes of fame. In my feed this morning came this typical example: “Cancer Cells Die In 42 Days: This Famous Austrian’s Juice Cured Over 45,000 People From Cancer And Other Incurable Diseases!

The story has many of the typical alternative medicine narrative talking points: natural is good, a healthful diet can cure anything, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidants, and detoxification are all good.

The narrative is so well established, especially within the target audience, that many components don’t have to be stated outright, they are just implied. The story is of a lone individual working for years to find a natural cure for cancer, and then finding it. The idea is simple – just starve tumors of the protein they need to live. His special organic raw vegetable juice (of mostly beetroot) will keep you healthy while you starve the cancer, while providing detoxing antioxidants to boot.

What’s wrong with this story?

The scientific narrative is very different from this alternative. Scientists want to know what is actually real, and in order to do so they have to painstakingly construct a picture from rigorous evidence filtered through critical analysis and logic. This is tedious, and often does not give us the answers we want, but they have the virtue of being more likely to be true.

First, there are problems with the big picture of this and similar claims. The most glaring is that cancer is not one disease, but a category containing many diseases. For this reason there will likely never be one cure for all cancer (at least not with any extrapolation of current technology). Right there any “cure for cancer” claims are highly suspect.

Further, cancer is complicated. Scientists around the world have been investing a great deal of resources trying to understand and treat cancer for decades. They have made a lot of progress, but also have discovered how complex and tricky cancer is as a phenomenon.

For this reason any significant new treatment for cancer would have a paper trail of supporting research behind it. By the time we are doing clinical trials there is a mountain of pre-clinical and preliminary clinical studies supporting a potential treatment.

The article claims, for example, that solid tumors require protein to survive, and therefore starving them of protein is the key to killing the tumor cells. OK, where is the evidence for that? That claim contradicts actual studies which show, if anything, cancer cells rely on sugar to maintain their rapid metabolism (though unsurprisingly, it’s a little more complicated than that).

Even still, starving tumors of sugar in the diet does not kill them off. Cancer cells are cancerous partly because they are versatile – if they are starved of sugar they switch to a different energy source. Mutations in cancer cells turn off the usual restraints that limit healthy cells from growing without limit.

In short, the 42-day juice diet is unlikely to starve cancer cells.

Another major problem with this kind of narrative is that, if there were such a treatment and it were as successful as claimed (they claim 100% success – itself suspect), then there would be no way to keep that treatment contained. If it were possible to cure any cancer in 42 days, everyone would be using by now. The effects would be undeniable. Such a homerun would be easy to demonstrate in even a simple clinical trial.

A dramatic cure for cancer would be like aliens landing on the White House lawn – everyone would know about it. Knowledge of the cure or aliens would not be hiding in the dark recesses of the internet.

When confronted with this argument, the narrative (like many cancer cells) adapts. It just invokes the grand conspiracy – the evil medical establishment is clearly hiding the cure. This, of course, is impossible. No institution has that reach or power.

Even when unstated, an establishment conspiracy is implicit in the narrative. That’s why doctors aren’t prescribing beetroot juice diets for all cancers.

Detox and anti-oxidants

There are also some specific problems with this particular narrative, invoking anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, boosting the immune system, and detoxification as further mechanisms for the alleged benefits of beetroot juice. These are the alternative narrative buzzwords of the day. Marketing has created a health halo around these terms, and all you have to do is sprinkle them on top of any product claim.

Detoxification is not even a legitimate concept. There are no products that generally detoxify the body. There are, of course, specific treatments for some specific toxins, but that is very different than general detoxification. This is just a vague term that sounds good but does not really mean anything.

“Boosting the immune system” is similar – it’s not really a thing. It has no coherent scientific meaning.

Interestingly, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects are the opposite of “boosting” the immune system. The immune system uses inflammation and oxidative stress as part of its defense against things like cancer cells.

Metabolism creates reactive oxygen species, which require antioxidants to keep them in check. Cancer cells require increased antioxidants to handle their increased metabolism. So, putting more antioxidants into the system would help cancer cells survive, if anything.

Beetroot extract does, in fact, contain betanin, which is an antioxidant. It also has some anti-tumor effect in vitro, but only 8.6% as effective as similar compounds already in use. This also does not say much about its activity when consumed because then bioavailability needs to be considered. Bioavailability is one of those things that scientists worry about, but is not part of the alternative narrative at all.

Conclusion: The narrative collapses

If you dig even slightly below the surface of the narrative, it starts to fall completely apart. There is no cure for all cancer. No treatment is 100% effective. Cancer is too complex for a lone researcher to find a cure, without a mountain of research leading the way – research that would require collaboration, resources, and create a paper trail.

There is no such thing as detox or boosting the immune system. Inflammatory and antioxidant effects are part of a complex homeostatic system within the body, and when you alter them the effects will be complex and just as likely to be harmful as beneficial. In this case, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects would very likely be counterproductive by helping tumor cells survive and suppressing the immune system’s ability to fight them.

The scientific narrative, in my opinion, is also very compelling, much more so than the simplistic marketing narrative purveyors of dubious treatments would have you believe. The scientific narrative, however, takes more activation energy.


Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.