Your guide to nutrition nonsense part 1: Red flags in adverts
In the internet age, we're bombarded by unprecedented volumes of information.
From the glowing device in your pocket, you can access more correct, up-to-date knowledge than you could read in multiple lifetimes.
Sadly, you also have unlimited access to much less reliable information. And this stuff tends to get promoted most effectively.
Misinformation touches every aspect of our lives, from pandemics to insurance policies, and it’s particularly prevalent in the world of nutrition.
This is partly because it’s relatively easy to monetize mysterious supplements and evidence-free books, diet plans, and weight loss quick-fixes. We all want to feel better and live longer.
To navigate this confusing universe of data, we’ve put together a series of guides to help you avoid nutribabble.
In this first part, we’ll outline some red flags to look for in nutrition and wellness ads. We'll focus on some terminology that companies use to hook potential customers.
Hopefully, this guide will equip you to spot marketing tricks next time you see them in the wild.
1. ‘FDA approved’
If a supplement or diet plan says “FDA approved,” you know it’s phony. Why? Because the United States Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve supplements or diets for effectiveness or safety.
Straight off the bat, you’ve identified some misinformation, and you can be incredibly skeptical about any other claims the company makes.
The same is true for “NHS approved” — the United Kingdom’s National Health Service doesn’t approve diets or supplements either.
2. Too good to be true
Nutrition grifters are out to make money. So, they’re happy to make things up. This means that no health claim, however wild, is off the table.
And if something seems too good to be true, it nearly always is.
There are no non-surgical ways to (safely) lose a lot of weight quickly. No supplement can stop cancer in its tracks. No diet plan can make your skin look 20 years younger.
Likewise, no pill, powder, or exercise program has been conclusively proven to reduce the risk of dementia. And aging cannot be halted by any elixir.
Also, look out for CAPITAL LETTERS — if a company needs to shout, be wary.
3. Too fast to be true
The word “fast” is a red flag. If a diet plan or supplement really does help you lose weight fast, it’s probably dangerous.
4. Can you keep a secret?
An old marketing trick is to make you feel like you’re in on a secret. Maybe you’re supposedly learning something that experts want to hush up.
So, if an ad says something like, “Doctors HATE this simple trick,” or, “You won’t believe this simple, SECRET way to lose weight,” you know it’s probably dodgy.
If any ad implies that something is a secret, remind yourself that a company paid for that to be displayed.
So, even if it was a secret, it isn’t anymore, and they’re terrible at keeping secrets.
5. 'Scientific breakthrough'
In scientific research, the word “breakthrough” is used very sparingly. It’s unlikely that a diet or supplement company would make a genuine breakthrough.
If it did, this discovery would make it into a respected scientific journal.
So, if a company isn't backing up its claims with a link to a published paper, you should be skeptical.
“Cure” is a strong word. It doesn’t just mean that a person's symptoms improve, it means that the health condition goes away and doesn’t come back.
If a supplement manufacturer claims that a product can cure cancer, diabetes, obesity, or any other chronic condition, it’s a bare-faced lie.
The term “superfoods” was invented by companies to sell more products. It’s not based on science, and it’s essentially meaningless.
There’s no denying that blueberries, pomegranates, and acai berries contain nutrients, but cheaper, more readily available foods can often provide similar levels.
And because “superfood” has no legal definition, companies are free to use it however they like.
Anyone promising to perform miracles for a fee should be given a wide berth.
9. 'Boost' your immune system
Nutrition companies often promise to “boost your immune system.” But the word “boost” in this context doesn’t mean very much. It certainly doesn’t have a scientific definition.
Also, ask yourself whether you'd really want to boost your immune system.
Your immune system is powerful, and it keeps you safe from pathogens.
But if it responds to things that aren’t dangerous, that could be called an allergy. And if it’s so overactive that it turns on other parts of your body, that’s an autoimmune disease.
Boosting the immune system is both impossible and unwanted.
However, you can support your health in a number of ways. For instance, by eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep. But those things don’t sell as many pills, powders, and supplements.
10. Before and after
People love a good story, and hearing about someone else’s struggle and eventual victory is compelling.
Advertisers know that “People buy people.” So, they might use before and after shots, particularly for weight loss products.
A dramatic set of images can go a long way. But it’s worth keeping in mind that photos are easy to embellish or fabricate. You shouldn’t see them as hard evidence.
And even if they're 100% genuine, it doesn’t mean that the product will work for you in the same way — we’re all different.
11. Check their creds
Often, nutrition companies have a central personality, spokesperson, or ambassador. It’s always a good idea to check their credentials. Do they have the relevant qualifications to be promoting these products?
Of course, it’s possible to become an expert without going through official channels and getting titles. But a lack of credentials is a signal to be wary.
Even if someone does have qualifications, it’s worth investigating further. Sometimes, these sound way fancier than they really are.
And certain institutions will hand out qualifications and certificates for small fees.
For instance, Dr. Ben Goldacre’s dead cat is a certified member of the impressive-sounding American Association of Nutritional Consultants. And it cost just $60.
12. 'Simply cut out X!'
If a diet expert tells you to cut out an entire food group, that’s a red flag.
It’s true that some foods should be enjoyed only once in a while — like candy and high-sugar sodas — but you don’t need to cut out anything entirely.
Avoiding any food group is unnecessary, and because it’s difficult to maintain in the long run, it’s doomed to failure.
Of course, if a qualified medical professional tells you to cut something out, you should certainly follow their advice.
13. Science-ish terms
When you look at nutrition ads or diet info, you probably want to see some scientific information.
And, of course, companies know this, so they’ll often provide some jargon to give their products a veneer of scienceyness.
It’s a good idea to search the terms they use. One place to start is Google Scholar, a service that only searches scientific papers.
As an example, we found an advert for weight loss pills that contain "ultra ketones." If you search for this term, there are zero results. It’s a pretty good clue that scientists haven’t tested this (or even discussed it).
To be fair, this won’t always work. Even shady salespeople might use appropriate scientific terms sometimes.
However, if their marketing blurb is chock full of difficult-to-pronounce terminology, it's a sign that they’re trying a little too hard to seem genuine.
14. But it's 'natural'
The word “natural” crops up in ads for a wide range of products, from paint to lipstick and from supplements to shampoo. But it has no legal meaning. It’s just a marketing term.
People like the idea that a product is close to nature. In reality, there’s nothing inherently good or bad about “natural” things.
For instance, cyanide is natural, as are wasp stings and influenza viruses.
If a nutrition company uses the word “natural,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they're trying to dupe you. But it’s good to remember that this term doesn’t really mean anything.
It’s also worth noting that even if an herb or extract is “natural,” it can do real harm.
15. 'Food is not enough'
If an ad for a supplement says anything like, “Food on its own can’t provide you with the nutrients you need,” consider walking away from the product. It's simply not true.
One notable exception is vitamin D. People in colder climates might benefit from vitamin D supplements in the darker months. Similarly, vegans might opt for omega-3 supplements.
However, the fact that humanity survived for countless generations before supplements were invented should be evidence that food certainly can be enough.
It’s true that a Western diet that includes loads of ultra-processed foods can lack nutrients. But if you aim for a balanced diet that includes 30 different plants each week, you should get all the nutrients you need.
16. Badmouthing scientists or doctors
“Your doctor doesn’t want you to be healthy. They want you to stay sick so they can make money off you.”
Sound familiar? You’ve guessed it. That’s a red flag.
This point is a little more nuanced than it first appears. Some people — especially those in historically marginalized groups — have a rightful distrust of the medical profession.
Some people have been ignored or poorly treated. And these experiences can cause harm that lasts.
Unfortunately, some salespeople use this to convince you that they’re on your side.
Of course, this list of red flags isn't exhaustive. People who want to make money out of your desire to get well have a lot of linguistic tricks.
The take-home message is this: Always keep your skepticism close at hand.
Whenever you're reading an advertisement for a pill, product, diet, or treatment, bear in mind that it's written by someone who wants to sell you something. And they don't necessarily have your best interests at heart.
Dietary supplements and herbal medicine toxicities — when to anticipate them and how to manage them. International Journal of Emergency Medicine. (2009). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2700222/
Dr Gillian McKeith (PhD) continued. (2004). https://www.theguardian.com/science/2004/sep/30/badscience.research
Is it really ‘FDA approved?’ (2022). https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/it-really-fda-approved