Remedy or ripoff? 5 things to watch out for

Hundreds of natural treatments on store shelves bring in billions of dollars in sales every year in Canada. CBC's Marketplace looks at how can you tell what's a cure-all and what's a cash grab.

CBC's Marketplace uncovers tactics behind popular natural treatments

It can be hard to tell if a natural treatment is a remedy or a ripoff. Marketplace investigated four popular treatments to find out which were effective and which didn't live up to marketing promises. (Shutterstock)

With hundreds of natural-sounding treatments on store shelves vying for our attention, it’s hard to know what works.

And with sales of natural supplements, diet treatments and personal care products in the billions of dollars, many consumers look at products and wonder: Is it a cure-all or a cash-grab?

CBC's Marketplace looked at four popular treatments, a detox cleanse, an anti-aging skin cream, a popular cold remedy and a diet treatment and tested the promises they make. The episode "Remedy or Ripoff?" airs tonight on CBC-TV on at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT).

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #toogoodtobetrue.

To avoid getting lured in by marketing tactics, here are five signs to watch for that may indicate the product in your hand is more ripoff than remedy.

1. "Clinically proven"

While this can sound like a product gets the scientific stamp of approval, it’s worth giving this label a second glance, Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist based in Chicago, told Marketplace co-host Tom Harrington.

“On the one hand it does mean that some sort of testing was done,” he says.

“But the term clinically proven or clinically tested doesn’t have any industry standard. There’s a wide range of what that actually means.”

And, he adds, any testing that was done may not cover all of the product’s claims.

It often depends on the quality — and type — of study that was done.

Marketplace investigated an expensive anti-aging skin cream and found that some of the clinical research was self-reported effects by a small group of women.

Marketplace also tested the science behind a cold treatment. What did the studies show? If you take the pills for 17 cold and flu seasons, you should get one less cold. 

2. Promises quick results

Dr. George Dresser, a toxicologist, pharmacologist and internal medical specialist at Western University in London, Ont., is wary of health products that promise fast results.

He says the "desire for quick fixes — the idea that you can take something for six days, seven days, 30 days, and end up with an immediate improvement in your health — is a very attractive concept.”

Some popular diet treatments on the market may sell pricey products, but it may actually be the diet plan that’s the key to any weight loss.

“If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight, and that's true on any program,” Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a specialist in nutrition and weight loss, told co-host Erica Johnson.

3. Celebrity endorsement

A big celebrity endorsement may give many treatments the air of respectability.

A U.S. Senate panel looking into bogus diet product ads took Dr. Mehmet Oz to task for touting weight-loss products on his syndicated television show. (Lauren Victoria Burke/Associated Press)
But as the U.S. Senate hearings with Dr. Mehmet Oz last summer made clear, celebrity endorsements, even by prominent a celebrity doctor, don't necessarily mean that the product is better or even works.

"When you call a product a miracle, and it's something you can buy and it's something that gives people false hope, I just don't understand why you need to go there," Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill said to Oz at the hearing on bogus diet products held in July.

"I don't get why you need to say this stuff because you know it's not true."

4. "Natural"

A very appealing catch-all term, the word natural can, in fact, mean very little.

Almost anything can be considered to have a natural origin, says Romanowski, and even naturally derived ingredients can still be highly processed.

“The reality is that any company can call their product natural and there’s a fair amount of greenwashing that goes on in the cosmetic industry.

"They take a regular product, sprinkle in some extract, put it in a green package, give it a grassy kind of scent and call it natural.”

5. Trendy scientific buzzwords

"Detoxification," "stem cells" and other medical-sounding terms can give a treatment the sheen of science, but there are reasons to give these products a skeptical look.

Research done by the U.K. research group the Voice of Young Science found that among popular detox regimes, no two companies defined “detoxification” the same way.

Romanowski says that including a graph or a molecule in advertising or packaging can make consumers believe a product’s claims.

"Marketers have known for years that if you make something sound sciencey and techy, that makes people think, naturally, that it’s going to work better, even when the terms are just made up,” he says.

With files from Tyana Grundig