Magic Beans in the Land of Oz

"Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain."   
- The Wizard, The Wizard of Oz
Perhaps it was a bit of surprise to see Dr. Mehmet Oz summoned in front of Congress recently. He is a well respected cardiovascular surgeon with a hit TV show and millions of fans who get plenty of medical advice from him. His facebook page has over 4.6 million likes. So, what did he do wrong, if anything?
Basically, he was chastised by a few members of the Senate Consumer Protection Panel for playing a role in the perpetuation of scams purporting the benefits of supplements, including green coffee bean extract and others, as "magic bullets" for weight loss. He has gone on in front of his audience and used terms like "lightning in a bottle", "miracle", and "magic weight loss cure". Somehow, this doesn't really sound too different from turn of the century snake oil vendors. He admitted that "they don't have the scientific muster to present as fact".
In his defense, he has clarified that he does not officially endorse or sell the products, i.e., he is not paid to promote the products, and he has created OzWatch as a means for consumers to report scams.
But this blog isn't really about the great and wonderful Dr. Oz. It's about our culture of supplements and diet pills. Because of our colossal need to resolve all our current and future maladies using magic pills, consumers spend upwards of hundreds of billions of dollars in looking for that magic cure. This is especially evident when you look at the weight loss industry.
Everyone's doctor will tell them that the best approach to weight loss is diet and exercise. This advice is not challenged in the medical community; everyone agrees with it. Yet, for the average person diet and exercise takes too much time, too much work, too much discipline, etc., so people look to other avenues. With this demand comes the swindlers and purveyors of half-truths who will convince you of anything to make a fast dollar. Furthermore, it’s almost impossible to tell fact from fiction when it comes to how companies market their products to consumers.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are the regulating bodies in charge of protecting American consumers, but are they doing enough? Regarding green coffee bean extract, the FTC recently sued green coffee bean sellers for deceiving consumers through fake news sites and bogus weight loss claims. While this is particularly extreme, there are plenty of more questionable sales tactics and claims that are not always addressed by the FTC or the FDA. Clearly, vitamins and supplements are not nearly under the level of scrutiny at which therapeutic drugs are regulated.
So what can you do to protect yourself?
  • Ask: can these claims be true? Snopes.com is an excellent website that sorts fact from myth. Visit WebMD.com and find information (you can also find product reviews here). Ask your doctor.
  • Read the scientific literature for yourself. If companies make claims about studies, go find those studies and ask questions. Start with PubMed. How large was the trial (5 patients or 500 patients)? What were the controls? Were the results statistically significant?
  • Investigate the brand. Have there been complaints filed with this company (BBB, FTC, Yelp, etc.)? Not all manufacturers make equivalently functional products, so find the ones that people trust.
So, let's get out there and be fit and eat right. If you feel you really need to take supplements, let’s use our brains and not just accept everything we’re bombarded with as the absolute truth, especially if it comes from the Land of Oz.

Read more on CNN’s coverage of Dr. Oz and Congress.
View John Oliver’s take on the Dr. Oz situation.
Contributed by Dzung Nguyen, PhD.
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