False Hope in a Bottle: The Trouble with Chasing the Next Big “Miracle” Pill

It seems there’s a always a hot new “miracle” food or supplement that sweeps the country.  Acai used to be the front runner.  Now it appears to be raspberry ketones.  Instead of goji berry, it’s African Mango.  Saffron extract is the new Sensa.

Now there’s a new crop of products promising miraculous fat-burning, belly-blasting results. Increasingly these miracle products are getting their big break on the Dr. Oz show.  Viewers hang on to every word Dr. Oz says and run out immediately after a convincing segment to buy the supplements touted on the show.  Marketers of these pills love to say “endorsed by Dr. Oz”  and his quotes are frequently cited in the ads for these products.  You can find websites now that feature all the supplements that Dr. Oz promotes, a search on Amazon for “Dr. Oz supplements” results in 1,406 listings, and other online supplement sellers categorize their pills according to Dr. Oz recommendations – such as Dr. Oz Weight Loss.

Perhaps no one has helped fuel the sale of  diet supplements more than Dr. Oz.  And that’s a shame.  Dr. Oz is a tremendous communicator and he’s brilliant at translating technical topics into simple, consumer-friendly language.  And how wonderful to have a popular talk show that’s all about health. Unfortunately, his focus has shifted to the glorification of “miracle” pills and his viewers are gobbling it up.  Before you’re tempted to spend your hard-earned money on the next hot thing, here’s what you need to know.


Raspberry Ketones

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What it is: Natural compounds that give red raspberries their distinct aroma.  Primarily used in the U.S. as a flavoring agent, they’re now bottled up in a pill (typically produced synthetically in a lab) and sold as a weight loss supplement.

What’s the promise: Dr. Oz described raspberry ketones as a “revolutionary metabolism booster that you’ve never heard of”  and a “fat burner in a bottle.”  Marketers sell raspberry ketones in pill and liquid form, claiming that the supplement can stimulate fat loss, inhibit fat absorption and increase fat burning or oxidation.

What you should know: No human clinical trials have been conducted.   The claims are all based on animal or test tube studies from Asia, where raspberry ketones seem to have gotten their start as a weight loss supplement.  It’s important not to jump to major conclusions based on what happens in the body of a rat or inside a test tube.  Most of the supplements add other ingredients, such as caffeine, that provides a stimulant effect.  Read more from Appetite for Health: 5 Things Dr. Oz Didn’t Mention About Raspberry Ketones.

Here’s the segment that got the raspberry ketone frenzy started:

African Mango

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What it is: A supplement made from extracts of the seeds of the West African mango known as Irvingia gabonesis.

What’s the promise: The pills are promoted as fat burners, especially belly fat.

What you should know: A study in Cameroon funded by a supplier of African mango supplements did show improvement in body fat among individuals consuming the pills compared to a placebo, but it is far from a miracle pill, particularly if you do nothing else besides take this pill (as promoted on the Dr. Oz show). You’re better off eating real fruit (like the lean West Africans do).

Saffron Extract

SaffronWhat it is: A pill or chew made from extracts of the culinary spice saffron, known as one of the most expensive spices in the word.

What’s the promise: Touted as an appetite suppressant, the supplements claim to control compulsive eating by affecting serotonin levels in the brain.

What you should know:

One study seems to be the basis of the meteoric rise in popularity of saffron supplements, although there are better ways to promote satiety with whole foods rather than pills, and more important things to do if someone is dealing with emotional eating (such as make an appointment with a registered dietitian who specializes in this area).

Here’s Dr. Oz talking about saffron extract. Just listen to the number of times he says “miracle,” “breakthrough,” and “revolutionary.”

What’s especially troubling to me is that this type of sensationalism reinforces a “fix it with a pill” mentality.  Instead of encouraging you to eat, for instance, more fresh raspberries and mangoes, the focus is on popping a pill of these foods.  And typically it’s a small extract of the real thing with other ingredients added in — so who knows how much of this “miraculous” ingredient you’re even getting.  Plus, often it’s a synthetic version of the compound made in a lab. Yes, there are lots of convincing testimonials that get people excited, but these “success stories” on TV or in an ad, are not a sufficient substitute for science.

Steven Charlap, MD, founder of MDPrevent,  is so incensed with what he sees going on every day on the Dr. Oz show that he dissects the dialogue on his blog.  He’s been criticized for taking on Dr. Oz, but here’s his response:

The other day I received a comment in response to something I wrote about the Dr. Oz show. It read, “You don’t challenge a wizard.”  It was an obvious cross-reference between the fictional Wizard in the Wizard of Oz and Dr. Mehmet Oz.  In response, I impulsively wrote, “He’s not a real wizard. He just plays one on TV.”  After writing my response, I started thinking about the similarities behind the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz and the actual Dr. Oz. Unlike the Wizard, Dr. Oz does not hide behind a curtain and use smoke and mirrors to impress his audience. Instead, on an almost daily basis he blatantly engages his audience with new secret cures and potions.  However, both characters do pretend to be something they are not. The Wizard worked hard to create the impression that he was all powerful, which turned out to be an illusion.  Dr. Oz pretends to have magic pills and miracle cures, to have powerful remedies to jump-start diets and create lean bellies, to make wrinkles disappear and treat dementia, which also all turn out to be illusions. So maybe we would all be better off if he actually hid all those supplements behind a curtain.  They say that life sometimes imitates art. Has there ever been a better example than the Dr. Oz show?

All of this chasing the next  big “breakthrough” and “miracle” is distracting.  I agree with Dr. Charlap:

Almost none of the pills Dr. Oz recommends have any real value. There are no magic, miracle, or power pills one can take to stay healthy, and that task mostly remains with us as individuals.  Be grateful that you have the ability to impact your health. The alternative may be far less pleasant.

Once again, it’s the magical thinking that bothers me. Sure, there could be beneficial supplements and aids for helping you lose weight, but these are not miracles in a bottle. It’s a disservice to all of Dr. Oz’s loyal viewers to make it seem like a pill is all you need. It makes everything else seem less important — like eating real foods, being active. I just wish Dr. Oz would channel his brilliance in getting America to cook more at home and to look to whole foods for the miracles. The answer doesn’t lie in a bottle. Dr. Oz is helping to sell a lot of supplements. I just wish he would inspire people to be just as enthusiastic about what they eat.


Raspberry Ketones and African Mango images courtesy of Rich Private Label Nutraceuticals on flickr

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5 Comments

  • Thank you for writing this! I can’t tell you how many patients of mine ask me about “raspberry ketones” and other weight loss gimmicks. We need to give up searching for the magic weight loss pill and gets down to healthy eating and active lifestyles.

  • I used to have a lot of respect for Dr. Oz’s opinions, but started becoming skeptical about them after he promoted the use of HCG for weight loss. I do feel he started out being quite unbiased (which is why so many people turn to him for health advice) – and hope that he believes that the products he promotes are helpful – but he seems to have lost his way somewhere. At this point professionals in the healthcare community are starting to notice, and if things don’t change than eventually so will his followers. I am rooting for him though and hope he comes around soon, because as you said, he is quite gifted at being able to translate complicated medical information into something that’s easy to understand. Thanks for the great post!

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  • Maria

    Shame on you DR. OZ. A lot of people is looking for a solution for their weight problem and he is just thinking about the money. I am glad I read this site. Thank you.

  • Bill Mumford

    Agree, it’s a real miracle for people who wish to lose fat.

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