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Before You Buy: A Woo Primer for Parents

November 21, 2010

It seems like many autism-related sites have ads on them for our kids, promising all sorts of results. How do we evaluate the claims of these products and prevent ourselves from (1) wasting precious financial resources, and (2) putting our precious children in harm’s way? There are some key things that one can look for that indicate woo and pseudoscience. We don’t have to be experts in a field; we just have to know how to evaluate claims and evidence.


Look at this ad located at the Autism File:






Tip off number 1: Natural. Natural implies better, safer, but has no particular relevance when it comes to safety or efficacy. It’s a gimmick and operates off people’s inferences. Look for words like “natural” and “organic.” 


Tip off number 2: Doctor recommended. What doctor? Just one doctor? This also means nothing. It’s an appeal to authority. Look out for things like “doctor recommended” and “clinically tested.”


And that’s just on the ad itself.  When one looks to the website for the company, more vague, meaningless asssertions abound.


The first thing a person should do when examining a company offering treatments for  various illnesses or disorders is scroll to the bottom and look for something like this:  “All material on BioRay’s website is provided for your information only and is not intended as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well being. This site and its content have not been evaluated by the FDA. The products and information on this site are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” You won’t see this warning without scrolling down and looking for it and it will usually be in smaller print.


In other words, if one buys this company’s products, one is choosing to buy something that isn’t proven, isn’t regulated, and could be anything at all. It takes awhile for the FDA to get around to shutting down quack companies and in the meantime, folks like Mercola, Weil, Mike Adams, and anyone who wants to set up shop in their mom’s basement can sell whatever they want as long as they don’t make specific health claims.


The first thing, though, that readers will see after clicking on the ad  is this: “BioRay utilizes the extraordinary balance of nature and science to create safe and effective organic whole food supplements that support, protect and maintain children’s health and wellness while recognizing their developmental needs.”


What does “extraordinary balance of nature and science” mean? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Listen, everything, and I mean literally everything, is composed of atoms of different elements that combine into different chemical compounds. Science allows us to understand nature. There’s no balance. And there’s no specificity in the above sentence from BioRay. How do we know they are “safe and effective organic whole food supplements that support, protect and maintain children’s health and wellness while recognizing their developmental needs”? What do they mean by organic? Whole food? What do they mean by that? And how does an “organic whole food” pill manage to “support, protect and maintain children’s health and wellness” at the same time that a PILL recognizes “their developmental needs”? It’s completely meaningless, and it should be a huge red flag when this is what one reads in the first paragraph of the main page of the company’s website.


Any kind of medication or treatment (and this is arguing that it will treat and fix a child’s autism) should make specific claims backed by empirical evidence. Watch out for vague rhetoric that when you break the sentences down into their substituent parts has no substance, no meaning.


The next paragraph is “Doctor recommended for children on the Autism Spectrum, BioRay products were created in clinic and are manufactured by integrating clinically tested ingredients with proprietary methods.”


Again with the doctor recommendation. So? Which doctor? Why should we care?  Okay, did the doctor who created them recommend it? This sentence is also completely meaningless and offers no support for why a concerned parent should buy this product and give it to her child. As parents, we should require more information. We should be inherently skeptical of someone trying to sell us products for our children.


Tip off number 3: Testimonials and anecdotes of the products efficacy are not evidence.


The website continues its sales pitch: “Parents of ASD children see dramatic improvements in cognition, appropriate social behavior, attention, concentration, communication, and eye contact with Liver Life™, CytoFlora™, and NDF Plus™.”


Anecdotal appeal with no substance. Why should we believe this website? And what constitutes “dramatic improvements.” We have a responsibility to not be swayed by words on a page with no corroborating evidence. What plausible mechanisms would account for these products creating all these improvements? Where is the empirical evidence that these products do this? Note that it’s three separate products, too.  The information for each product is just as meaningless.


Tip off number 4: Beware questionnaires, especially when they come with product recommendations.


Alright, let’s say none of this has set off red flags for the parent, and the parent moves on to “Where Do I Start?” Beware of questionnaires. Especially if you are gullible. Oh dear gods, I took it and I scored 139! I have high toxicity exposure because for one, I had vaccines, which are worth 20 whole points. Smoking is also worth 20 points. Wow. Really?  I need “Liver Life, CytoFlora. Total environmental cleanse/detox immediately.” No matter how low I go, though, I need both Liver Life and CytoFlora. Let’s say you were buying into what they had to say, but decided to do what I did and tinker with the questionnaire. The fact that it recommends the same two products even if I get my score down to 1. 


So what evidence does BioRay provide that this is an valid and reliable questionnaire? None. How do they tabulate the score and decide how much each symptom or answer is worth? Don’t know. Empirically validated questionnaires will inform you of all of this. And there won’t be product recommendations when you are through, either.


Tip off number 5: Look out for published articles and case studies.


Moving on, the next reasonable place to look is at their tab Articles and Case Studies. They claim they’ve been published in the “peer reviewed Explore Magazine and provide a link to a study with ten kids on the spectrum. It’s not a study, though; it’s an extended advertisement. PubMed and online databases turn up no hits for the article, even turning to the Alt HealthWatch database. The pdf of the paper shows that it’s Explore! volume 19 issue 1. It’s not EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing, though. That’s certainly woo-filled, but nope. So where is Explore!? Hard to find, to be honest, although if you plug in 
Explore! volume 19 issue 1″ to google, you can get pdfs of other articles, like one on Morgellons. To the trusty databases we go! Using Academic Search Complete, Alt HealthWatch, Health Source – Consumer Edition, Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition, MEDLINEand typing in Explore! and source doesn’t bring up this journal. After wading through other hits on google, I hit on a blog that took me back to Explore!


If it’s legitimate, then the journal should be clearly identified and easily findable. Most peer reviewed journals 
won’t say peer reviewed right on the banner. And this isn’t a journal. The chakra pictures ought to be a clue as well that you’ve entered the land of mystical woo woo. Hey, and the fact that one can buy the entire “library” of Explore! for $295 ought to be a tip off. This should be as well: “We gladly accept articles from our advertisers or those wishing to publish research on products or treatments. In such instances, the following guidelines will apply: A) The product, treatment, or device must not be mentioned more than two (2) times throughout the article; and B) The name and contact information of manufacturers, distributors, or any other source from which the items may be obtained may not be mentioned in the article at all.”


Despite Explore!‘s assertion that it is peer reviewed, there is no evidence that it is; the only indication is this bit under submission guidelines: “Your article submission will be reviewed and requires approval by the Journal’s Articles Review Board in order to be accepted for publication.” That is not what is generally meant by peer review.


Tip off number 6: Look at the credentials of the persons running the company.


So BioRay has one publication in a woo magazine and no articles in reputable journals. None of the authors of the one publication have any publications in the databases mentioned above. One of the authors is the office administrator. The BioRay Team page shouldn’t inspire confidence. As a parent, you want to make sure that the products you buy, the supplements you are going to put in your child’s body are tested and reliable, made by qualified professionals. At the very least, you should want to see where these folks went to school, what their qualifications are. Generalized information like ‘has studied heavy metal toxicity intensely’ (my own description based on reading the descriptions of the team) should not inspire confidence.


Bottom Line: We have a tendency to believe that if it’s for sale, it must be safe and it must work. This is not the case in the supplemental industry. The buyer must beware. There are no guarantees; there are rarely studies showing efficacy, and anyone can open a company, put the quack Miranda warning on her site, make vague claims and sell grass clippings as gastrointestinal supportive supplements.


Know the signs of woo and pseudoscience before you gamble with your child’s well-being. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. And as for claims that big pharma won’t reveal the truth about natural cures because they’d lose money, no. They’d synthesize it like they did with white willow bark and aspirin and make sure that every dose contained the same amount of active ingredients.

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