With the New Year beckoning and a general feeling that this time of year brings with it a tendency to ‘tox out’ on food and drink, I suspect some of you may be contemplating a bit of an internal spring clean in the form of a detox programme. However, I note that Andrew Wadge, the chief scientist of the UK’s Food Standards Agency reckons you’d be wasting your time. In his blog, which you can read for yourself here, Dr Wadge basically claims that detox diets and supplements are a waste of time and money, and that we can rely on our liver to keep ourselves toxin-free quite naturally.
Reading this blog post was vaguely reminiscent for me of the recent BMJ article I wrote about recently in which the value of drinking water was poo-poohed. The problem here, as I saw it, is that scientists often use the lack of evidence for something as evidence that it lacks merit. There’s nothing scientific about this of course, it just looks a bit scientific, particularly if the person making the claim has ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ in front of his or her name.
And that’s exactly the situation we seem to have here with Dr Wadge and his opinion on detox regimes. I say ‘opinion’, because Dr Wadge does not offer one shred of decent evidence that disproves the value of detox regimes: he just states that they’re worthless, and recommends instead that we drink tap water (despite the fact, by the way, that there is quite a body of evidence linking the consumption of tap water with an increased risk of cancer) and take a walk in the park.
Take a note, if you will, of how Dr Wadge positions his blog. Of it, he states: As the Food Standards Agency’s Chief Scientist, I want this blog to show the importance of good science and how we use it to inform FSA policies and advice.� For someone so seemingly keen on good science, what a shame it seems that Dr Wadge has decided not to use any of it before pronouncing on the potential merits of detoxification. Below, I have added a previous piece which was a response to individuals using something purporting to be science to discredit detox regimes. The value detox diets is not proven – but the approach does at least make sense.
I reckon Dr Wadge’s comments should be seen for what they are: opinion, and not anything resembling scientifically verified fact. But then again, should we be too surprised? After all, the FSA does seem to have a habit of misinforming the public and, seemingly, not acting in their best interests [1-4].
4. Why the food labelling schemes proposed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) will do little to safeguard our health
Doctors say ‘detox’ diets are worthless – are they right? – 20 June 2005
While nutritional medicine has enjoyed growing acceptance amongst doctors over the last decade or so, certain factions within the medical establishment remain somewhat sceptical about the health benefits naturally-oriented approaches may offer. An example of this appeared in last month’s edition of the title Food Technology, in the form of an article entitled ‘Detox Diets Provide Empty Promises’. In it, a doctor and a scientist from the USA take a cynical view of the notion that detoxification diets can enhance health and well-being. The authors make the case that such diets are irrational and unscientific, and leave us with the impression that those touting the benefits of such internal cleansing methods are engaged in what amounts to a dirty business.
While there is a lack of scientific evidence for detoxification diets, this comes as no real surprise when one considers that such diets have not been subjected to formal study. Detox diets are, however, based on the principle that the body can suffer as a result of excesses of internal pollution, the sources of which include the breakdown products of food, and toxins that may be ingested, inhaled and absorbed through the skin. The conventional view, and the one that underpins the stance taken in the Food Technology article, is that within hours of gaining access to the body, toxic substances are effectively neutralised through the actions of organ systems including the lungs, liver and kidneys, and therefore pose no threat to health.
This often-quoted theory assumes that the body has unlimited capacity to cope with whatever type and level of pollutant it is exposed to. However, if this were really the case, then we could all quaff arsenic or cyanide without fear of ill-effect. The plain fact of the matter is there is the potential for levels of toxic substances to exceed the body’s ability to deal with them. This opens up the possibility that we may indeed harbour levels of toxic substances within the body that, whilst not life-threatening, may nonetheless compromise well-being.
In practice, excesses of internal toxicity seem to have the capacity to manifest as one or more of a range of issues including fatigue, spots and bad breath. Diets designed to deal with toxicity usually emphasise nutritious foods believed to be relatively easily assimilated by the body such as fruit and vegetables (preferably organic), coupled with plenty of water to assist the cleansing process. Over the years, I have witnessed countless glowing first-hand reports of the well-being improvements such diets so-often seem to induce.
Curiously, the detox diet detractors writing in Food Technology do not dispute these benefits, but attempt to explain them through alternative mechanisms including improved hydration and a reduced intake of alcohol and caffeine – all things, by the way, that would be expected to assist the detoxification process. Also, while they condemn detoxification diets as unscientific, they themselves do not quote one single piece of evidence from the scientific literature that supports the views and beliefs they express. One wonders where the science is in that.