Science or Snake Oil? Determining Quality Ingredients

In the words of Ben Goldacre, telling snake oil from remedy using online studies requires you to make sense of “a glorious, necessary mess.” Clinical trials have to confound the bias of researchers, publishers, and patients alike, otherwise their results are unreliable. Double blind, randomized human trials are the only gold standard that shows genuine efficacy. Animal and in vitro studies aren’t inferior. They’re simply not evidence yet. They tell researchers which potential products might be a remedy and deserves further study.

The blog “Information is Beautiful” recently put the power of automaton to work by creating an infographic that responds to emerging trials as they happen. By weighing the value of trial design against the respectability of the journals that published them, they’ve produced a clear visualization as a shortcut for time-poor supplement shoppers.

The Good

Caffeine, St John’s Wort, probiotics, and vitamin D are the only remedies awarded the “strong evidence” label. St John’s Wort performed exceptionally well in a meta study by the highly respected Cochrane review. That said, buying it from a shoddy supplement manufacturer may be as good as taking a placebo. Botanicals are only as good as their makers’ quality control measures.

The Bad

Supplements earning the “slight evidence” label were found ineffective by major peer reviewed journals. There is a colossal chasm between ineffective and pre-emptive. If a new botanical emerged this week, evidence for its efficacy would be slight for obvious reasons. In contrast, a botanical that has been studied for decades without producing any results can be considered ineffective.

The Ugly

Natural isn’t a synonym for safe. If a botanical can help, it must necessarily also have the power to harm. The best resource for discovering risk is the FDA and your doctor.

The All of the Above

Many ingredients show promising results for some conditions while lacking evidence regarding other conditions. For example, lavender has not adequately been proven to aid with sleep and relaxation, but there is strong evidence for its usefulness in treating mild to moderate depression. Fish oil supplements have been linked to effective prevention and treatment of some cancers, but may increase the risk of developing others.

These are important considerations when formulating a supplement. Ultimately, FDA guidelines determine the types of health claims you can print on labels and marketing materials. Keeping up with current research that may change the status of certain ingredients can only help your brand reputation.