In 1994 Congress (pushed by Senators Harkin and Hatch) passed DSHEA (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act). As regular readers of SBM know, we are not generally happy about this law, which essentially deregulated the supplement industry. Under DSHEA supplements, a category which specifically was defined to include herbals, are regulated more like food than like medicinals.

Since then the flood-gates opened, and there has been open competition in the marketplace for supplement products. This has not resulted, I would argue, in better products – only in slicker and more deceptive claims. What research we have into popular herbals and supplements shows that they are generally worthless (except for targeted vitamin supplementation, which was already part of science-based medicine, and remains so).

A company can essentially put a random combination of plants and vitamins into a pill or liquid and then make whatever health claims they wish for their product, as long as they stay within the “structure-function” guidelines. This means they cannot claim to cure or treat a specific disease, but this has proven to be an insignificant limitation on marketing supplements.

It has been fascinating to watch the evolution of supplement marketing claims and strategies. One new twist caught my eye – what I am calling the “scam scam.” Some companies realize that the internet is the primary battle ground for the marketing of their product. Many companies also probably know that their claims are largely scientifically baseless – if you’re in the meeting where the claims are crafted and the marketing strategy developed, it would be hard to be delusional about their scientific validity. I suspect most companies just don’t care about the science or understand it, and you can find some justification to cherry pick for most any supplement claim you wish with just a little Googleing.

It also appears that many companies are starting to realize that “those meddling skeptics” are starting to cramp their style, at least a little bit. If you search on the name of a supplement product, you are likely to get a link for a consumer protection or skeptical site revealing the claims to be a scam, or at least scientifically dubious. Invariably when I write about a specific product in a blog post a company marketing rep will show up in the comments to claim that I was unfair and that they do have evidence for their claims. Of course, when asked for the evidence it rapidly becomes clear that they don’t have any, outside a worthless in-house study or two.

Companies cannot silence the scientific analysis of their claims. Some have tried using the libel laws, but that has generally not worked out well for them. That approach instantly raises the visibility of the criticism by orders of magnitude, and the companies or individuals generally lose in the end.

So now some companies have hit upon a different strategy – if you cannot silence the skeptics, then bury them with fake skeptics of your own. That way at least their websites won’t appear on the first page of Google searches (at least that’s the hope). One product, Shakeology, seems to be marketed entirely as “Shakeology Scam” (trek2befit (dot) com/shakeology-scam). The website starts out saying – “Do Not buy Shakeology” with “Skakeology Scam” in big letters. Of course, when you read down even a little bit you find:

Ok, I couldn’t let this question linger any longer. I’ve got to tell you right now, that it’s not a scam. Why, and how do I know? Because I’ve had first hand experience with this product.

Then you get a standard sales pitch – but it’s more believable, because the person making the pitch started out as a skeptic – right? What do these magic shakes do? The claims are typical – lose weight without food cravings, have more energy, and they throw in that they will lower your cholesterol. What are in these shakes:

– Antioxidants: Will help to boost your immune system to prevent you from getting sick. Antioxidants will also help to lower free radical damage which can lead to stroke, heart attacks, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
– Prebiotics AND Probiotics: Will help to support your immune and digestive health.
– Phytonutrients: Will help to support healthy immune function. They also have anti-inflammatory properties, and antioxidant properties.
– Vitamins and Minerals: Will help you to maintain optimal health.
– Whey Protein: Will help you to lose weight, build muscle, supports brain functions, as well as keeps your bones and skin healthy.
– Digestive Enzymes, Fiber and More…

Antioxidants are of no proven benefit, and may actually be associated with a higher death rate. Prebiotics and probiotics are of no benefit when taken routinely, and of dubious benefit (and only if taken very early and in sufficient amounts) for antibiotic-associated GI syndromes. Phytonutrients and routine vitamin supplementation – again, no proven benefit. Whey protein is protein, and you can get this a lot cheaper by drinking Yoohoo. And again, digestive enzymes are of no proven benefit for routine use. Fiber is good, but you don’t need to buy expensive shakes to get it.

The claims are typical and you can find them on thousands of websites selling all sorts of supplements. But the “scam scam” marketing is a nice twist. I especially like the glowing comments at the bottom that read like ad copy.

I have encountered this strategy before also – with some of the “superfood” products. Specifically, there has been an acai scam marketing campaign going on. If you search on “acai scam” you will find sites with headlines like, “Acai Berry Scam – the Untold Truth about Acai Berry Scams.” Once again, when you read the copy you find that an “independent reporter” investigated the alleged scam and found that that a particular acai berry product was not a scam and really worked. Some are formatted as if they are news sites, complete with stock photos of fake reporters.

So don’t be scammed by the scam scam. It’s all just another marketing ploy in the wild west of the supplement marketplace.


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.