Can food burn fat? Can alkaline water treat cancer? The reality behind nutrition claims that sound too good to be true
Flashy marketing combined with convincing health claims can be persuasive, but are often nonsense. We look at the reality of four claims: fat-burning and immune-boosting foods, acid-neutralising alkaline water, and ‘no added sugar’
Would you like to kick-start your metabolism and strengthen your immunity to diseases? Just eat fat-burning foods with immune-boosting ingredients, and drink alkaline water.
Actually, that whole paragraph, and its very concept, is a lie. But it sounds promising – and familiar – doesn’t it? It’s common for marketers to exaggerate claims to entice us to buy products. And we believe much of what we read when it sounds scientific and plausible.
This practice is brilliantly exposed in a video from the Office for Science and Society (OSS) at McGill University in Montreal, Canada that went viral last week. Jonathan Jarry, science communicator at the OSS and the person who made the video, says that flashy marketing accompanied by cool music, enticing fonts and pleasing images are very effective tools of persuasion.
“Many people believe what they see because the packaging is convincing,” Jarry says. “Our access to information has exploded since the development of the internet, but most of us have never been taught how to critically assess this information.” And the truth is, lots of “information” is junk.
Don’t fall for scientific-sounding claims or nutritional trickery. Here are four examples to be aware of.
The claim: Certain foods rev up metabolism and cause heat inside the body, which helps you lose weight as fat miraculously burns away.
The reality: Studies show that capsaicin in hot peppers does have some effect on internal temperature and metabolism, but it’s minimal. Hot peppers cannot solve the obesity epidemic, but many marketers exaggerate and twist the claims into flashy and enticing ads that suggest otherwise.
Websites that sell capsaicin supplements throw in scientific words that most people don’t understand, such as adipocytes, neuropeptides and thermogenesis. These terms sound clinical and credible, and you’re led to believe that these pills can aid in weight loss, no matter your diet or exercise level. It’s nonsense.
And then there’s the multitude of online articles that list the “best fat-burning foods” and highlight random items such as oatmeal, chicken and yogurt. Sure, these foods can be part of a balanced diet, but there’s absolutely no evidence that they magically make your fat cells shrink away. No food, drink or supplement can do that.
The claim: Foods with vitamins or antioxidants can strengthen your immune system and leave you more resistant to disease.
The reality: Any food that is part of a healthy diet will promote good overall health, which helps the immune system function optimally, explains David Stukus, an associate professor in the division of allergy and immunology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio.
“Claims that individual foods can ‘boost immunity’ are generally unfounded and extrapolated from research in lab animals or association data that does not demonstrate any true cause-and-effect relationship,” Stukus says.
He adds that boosted or overactive immune systems cause problems, including autoimmune conditions such as lupus or coeliac disease. “Ask anyone with a chronic autoimmune condition if they are happy about their ‘boosted’ immune system, and I’m sure they’re not,” Stukus says.
Enjoy a healthy diet for proper immune health, but don’t expect any superfoods to give you a true immune boost.
Acid-neutralising alkaline water
The claim: Because it’s less acidic than tap water and contains more minerals, alkaline water is believed by its proponents to neutralise the acid in your blood and lead to better health. Website sales pitches claim alkaline water can help you lose weight, avoid diabetes, live longer, fight cancer and, my favourite, boost your immune system.
The reality: “For alkaline water to work, it would have to overcome a very strong protective mechanism that we all have: our blood is always kept within a very strict pH range,” Jarry says. “Drinking alkaline water won’t change that, especially since our stomach’s acid will neutralise the alkalinity. It’s pseudoscience, pure and simple.” He admits, though, that alkaline water will probably quench your thirst.
If you want to make alkaline water at home, a water filter costs anywhere from US$400 to US$1,500. Science says: save your money and drink plain old water instead.
No added sugar
The claim: Packages of sweet foods made with fruit say they have “no added sugar”.
The reality: Fruit can be turned into sugar during processing, and it’s easy to consume too much.
In nutrition textbooks, sugar is divided into two types: natural sugars, such as those found in fruit, and added sugars, such as honey, syrup and white sugar. Here’s the trick: companies take real fruit, concentrate it into a pulp or purée, and then use it to sweeten foods. Because it comes from fruit, food labelling laws allow the sweetener to be called natural, and the claim “no added sugar” is permissible, even though the fruit is basically processed into sugar or syrup.
If a food package says “no added sugar”, look at the ingredient list. If you see fruit pulp, concentrate or purée, that’s sugar! Now check the item’s “nutrition facts” panel. You may be shocked to find that your “no added sugar” juice or confectionery has 40 grams (10 teaspoons) of “natural” sugar per serving. Anything with that much sugar is not healthy to consume in a single serving.
The bottom line is buyer beware. “If someone out there is offering a miracle cure or other treatment that sounds too good to be true, then it is,” Stukus says.