Monday, April 30, 2007

Sham: "Borrowed Science"

How would you like it if you read an article about how great a product is, and then bought some, only to find it didn't work at all? If you are like me, I'd label that a SHAM.

Many of us consume dietary supplements, herbs, vitamins and botanical products that have claims about their use. In fact, that's much of what we'll be reporting on here in Sham vs. Wham. Unfortunately, as much as I love these alternative healthcare products in general, there are far too many ways to "trick" the public when marketing departments go to work.

The biggest frustration that I have is something called "borrowed science." If you've been reading this blog, you know that I've spent much of my life working with science and scientists, and data to support a product's sale is very important to me. I admire those companies that spend the time (and money) to get their proprietary research out into the marketplace, or to help academic researchers and clinicians perform clinical trials on their products in humans. After all, before I take something, I'd like to know exactly what to expect. While I may be a little bit more fanatical than others about this because of my work experience, I think we all have the same general idea. Before spending our money, we'd like some assurance that the stuff actually works. Sometimes its a safety issue, but most often it's just an efficacy issue. Who wants to spend their money on something that doesn't work any better than a sugar pill???

That's where good science comes in. There are a number of companies all over the world that do the math (and the science) on their products. This research and clinical data supports their specific product and formulation. I'll be highlighting these products in the WHAM category over the next months. However, there is no bigger SHAM than those other companies that take the research of one company and pass it off as their own on their websites or marketing literature.

Here's an example . . . A magazine called "Let's Live" published an article in December 2006 about the herb Andrographis, with a lot of hoopla about how well it works and what it does to prevent colds and flu, or to knock out sinusitis, etc. Much of the research discussed, both in the text as well as in the referenced scientific literature, was from Swedish Herbal Institute, all conducted on a very specialized product called Kan Jang®, and yet the Swedish company or their product was never mentioned. The magazine actually used this research and clinical data to support the products of a number of other companies whose products were shown. I find this particularly scary, especially in light of the fact that Kan Jang® is a product that contains a combination of herbs, and not just Andrographis. How can they even suggest that a simple bottle of Andrographis would give you the same results as a complex, multi-herb product?

After an article like this, thousands of sales clerks in stores that distribute this free magazine start pitching these claims for their $6.99 bottles of Andrographis tablets, when in reality, the product that actually did have these clinical results wasn't even mentioned in the article. Yes, that's unfair; it is borrowed science, one of the biggest problems facing the consumer of dietary supplements. Borrowed science is a SHAM. Magazine and journal editors need to have the guts to place the following cautionary statement into articles in which supplement claims are made:

"The studies described in this article may involve proprietary standardized preparations of the herb under discussion which differ significantly in their constituents from other products manufactured from the same herb. The results of studies on one formulation cannot be taken as evidence regarding the effectiveness or safety of other formulations."

An excellent article about this topic from our favorite medicine hunter Chris Kilham is linked to the headline of this blog. (Unfortunately, after editorializing on the topic, Kilham recommends a few supplements that "borrow" the science of other companies. While this experienced veteran's work certainly falls far from the SHAM category, I just don't understand the contradiction.)


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