Personal Health

​5 Health Products That Never Lived Up to Their Hype

While these pills and potions were touted as miraculous, they never delivered the goods.

Photo Credit: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

Sometimes, health products are good, but they’re not all that good. That’s when a little bit of marketing goes a long way. A healthy food can easily become a “superfood” and a medical treatment with dubious research behind it can be heralded as a “cure.”

Often, these products are all the rage for a few years until reality sets in. Medical studies come in, skeptics find fault with research, and consumers don’t see the health benefits they were promised. But sometimes, there’s a bit of inertia when it comes to the public perception of these products.

So, here are five health products that were marketed as wonders, yet really aren’t so great after all.

1. Resveratrol.Resveratrol is a compound found in the skin of red grapes (and thus red wine), some berries, chocolate, and the roots of Japanese knotweed. The public’s fascination with this antioxidant began in the mid-1990s when research studies discovered that the French — who eat a diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol — had low levels of coronary heart disease. Known as the French Paradox, some researchers hypothesized that red wine, a staple drink in France, was the key to this mystery.

In 2006, scientists conducting studies on mice hinted that resveratrol might control weight, fight heart disease and lengthen life. After some media hype about this research, sales of resveratrol supplements (usually made from knotweed) skyrocketed. When high demand made resveratrol scarce on health store shelves, it was heavily marketed on the Internet as a “miracle supplement,” mostly by fly-by-night operations selling a fake version. And as resveratrol is not regulated by the FDA, consumers didn’t know if they were getting the real deal or not. They still don’t.

But the genuine resveratrol might not be much better than the impostor. The doses in most resveratrol supplements, between 250 and 500 milligrams, are much lower than what’s shown to be effective in studies. To get the equivalent dose of that used in animal studies, you’d have to take 2,000 milligrams a day.

Moreover, human research has been inconclusive. A study of nearly 800 people by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the National Institute on Aging found no meaningful differences in heart disease, cancer or longevity between those who consumed a diet high in resveratrol and those who consumed very little.

Also, consumers should beware that resveratrol interacts with blood thinners such as warfarin and anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin and ibuprofen, possibly increasing the risk of bleeding.

2. Drugstore baby gender prediction tests. There are two types of at-home gender prediction tests: The most common is the urine test, which works by mixing a pregnant woman’s urine in a bottle of chemicals. If the solution remains yellow or orange, the child should be a girl, but if it turns dark green, it indicates a boy. The tests supposedly work by gauging the amount of testosterone in a woman’s urine. The blood tests take a sample of blood from a woman’s finger and measure the presence of male DNA in her blood. You have to send the sample to a lab and wait 3 to 5 days for results.

Despite their accuracy claims, all the tests we looked at come with disclaimers warning expecting parents to wait for a sonogram analysis, chorionic villus sampling, or amniocentesis test to confirm the baby’s gender. Moreover, obstetricians warn that the tests are far from accurate and the urine-tests are somewhat bogus as there aren't sufficient sex hormones present in a woman’s urine during early pregnancy to determine the gender of her baby.

The blood-based tests do appear to have some solid science behind them, says the Journal of the American Medical Association. However, the journal cautions there can be a big difference in accuracy between at-home tests that may be easily contaminated and quality-controlled tests administered at doctors' offices and sent to medical laboratories.

The CVS drugstore chain sells a urine test called IntelliGender Gender Prediction Test. But you may want to read the reviews and comments customers leave on the product's Amazon.com page before picking one up. While about half the people who bought the IntelliGender said it worked well, the other half say the kit got their baby’s gender wrong. Perhaps flipping a quarter would work better.

3. Pomegranate juice. Only a decade ago, few people in the U.S. had ever tried pomegranate juice. Then we were bombarded with wonderful health claims that it would lower LDL cholesterol, protect the heart and prostate, help ward off some forms of cancer, and treat erectile dysfunction. Many of these claims were made by Pom Wonderful, the first brand to market the fruit juice nationwide.

Pom’s logo and its unique “double bulb” bottle were splashed on billboards and magazine pages with statements like “Health in a Bottle” and “Cheat Death.” This made the product an instant hit with health-conscious consumers, despite costing about three times more than a similar cranberry and apple juice product.

But Pom was not the magic elixir it was marketed as. While pomegranate juice, like other fruit  juices, is rich in nutrients and antioxidants, clinical studies show it has no proven health benefits that distinguish it from other juices. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration accused Pom Wonderful’s manufacturer of hyping the health benefits of its juice, contending it was marketing it like a drug. Pom’s health claims were nothing more than boastful marketing, and not scientifically valid, said the FDA.

The agencies have demanded that Pom Wonderful modify its claims. In 2012, a federal judge ruled that the company's claims were deceptive and issued a cease and desist order. ​

4. Multivitamins. An estimated 50% of Americans take a multivitamin and mineral supplement daily at a cost of up to $2 per pill. But the latest research on multivitamins indicate they are no better than a placebo, offering no health benefits to people who are otherwise well-nourished.

Three recent studies found that the use of multivitamins didn't prevent heart disease or memory loss, and had no effect on longevity. Many health experts claim that high doses of some vitamins may even be harmful. Researchers say a good diet and exercise are a better use of the money spent on multivitamins and they recommend that people stop taking them.

The studies, published late last year in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, found little difference between multivitamin and mineral supplements and placebo pills. Previous studies suggest that high doses of certain vitamins might cause harm.

"We believe that it's clear that vitamins are not working," said Eliseo Guallar, a professor at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the author of an editorial highlighting the three studies.

Even taking supplements to fill gaps in a less-than-perfect diet might not provide a health boost, Guallar said, adding, "It would be great if all dietary problems could be solved with a pill. Unfortunately, that's not the case."

5. Over-the-counter hair loss treatments. Back in the early 1980s, it was discovered that the active ingredient in blood-pressure medication produced hair on top of previously bald scalps. Thus the legend of minoxidil, the first medically approved hair loss treatment, was born.

But there are still a lot of bald heads out there. Although approved by the FDA to treat hair loss since the late 1980s, minoxidil works for some people much better than others. Studies have shown that the over-the-counter versions of treatments such as Rogaine (2% or 5% minoxidil), may only work on little more than a third of the men and women who try them.

Research indicates that patients must have an active enzyme called sulfotransferase in their hair follicles for minoxidil to do its job. This enzyme helps convert minoxidil into a compound called minoxidil sulfate, which is what actively stimulates the follicles. And even if a person has enough of the enzyme in his scalp, other problems, such as inflammation, might further reduce minoxidil’s efficacy.

If you’re experiencing hair loss, the over-the-counter versions of minoxidil — formerly prescription strength — likely won’t work for you. If a full head of hair is that important to you, more powerful prescription formulas provide better results. Tests will be available soon to determine if patients will respond to minoxidil, so they don’t have to spend between $12 and $30 a month on treatments to find out if they’ll grow hair on their heads.

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.

 

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