Don’t fall for the myth of ‘detox’ foods

    20 August 2020

    Chances are that most of us would have first heard about a detox back in the day when a celebrity checked into a clinic to address substance addiction, a challenging and potentially life-changing programme. It’s serious stuff as withdrawal requires expert support to help the individual through complex psychological and physiological changes.  Yet the concept has been borrowed and diluted (some might say debased) into something quite different these days and is applied to all manner of activities. For example, avoiding social media for a few days is called a ‘digital detox’ or clearing out unwanted clothes renamed a ‘wardrobe detox’.

    The detox concept has also been embraced by the commercial world as a marketing term, and whilst its meaning is unclear, you can find countless products with detox claims in many categories found in your local chemist or supermarket. A quick look in Boots throws up several examples: Nivea’s Urban Skin Detox cream, Olay’s detox masks and John Freida’s detox hair spray as well as a Colgate detox toothpaste.

    But it’s when detox is applied to food and diet that things can become very unclear as it’s built on the premise that what we eat is toxic, and we need to give it up in order to be well.  In the publishing world the word detox has proven popular as it’s often used in book titles. An Amazon search threw up some sixteen pages of titles under the detox category so there are plenty to choose from. These include Carole Vorderman’s Detox for Life from 2009, as well as the Detox Book from 2013, by the naturopath Bruce Fife, in which he explains how to Detoxify Your Body to Improve Your Health, Stop Disease and Reverse Ageing.

    So how did this detox fad come about? And is there any nutritional truth in it? The human body has evolved to deal with what are considered to be poisons, usually derived from plants or animals, through processes that mostly involve the liver, kidneys, lungs and colon. There are countless elements involved in the process of detoxification as well as elimination of the end products including fibre that helps bulk up the stool and fluids that carry the liquid waste eliminated in urine.

    The main organ of detoxification, the liver, makes use of any number of nutrients and no single vitamin or mineral is more important than any other as each plays a role in one way or another. This hasn’t stopped companies from attempting to cash in on the concept of detoxification, though I very much doubt that whoever makes the decision to name a main course a ‘detox salad’ has a PhD in biochemistry.

    Instead, they will have a background in marketing and will understand that the time-honoured way to sell something is to highlight a problem to be solved. This way of selling is commonplace, but when used in relation to health and weight the notion of detox relies on making us believe that we are passive absorbers of nasty toxins which are causing all manner of problems.  No need to sell the product, plan, pill or potion to help ‘detox’, instead play up the idea that you are somehow toxic.  Attaching some symptoms to the idea of toxicity, such as headaches and fatigue, widens its reach. After all, who doesn’t get occasional headaches or feel tired?

    The great and the good of the health and nutrition world have repeatedly dismissed the idea of detox. To my mind there is no-one better qualified than Edzard Ernst, who until his retirement held the position of professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter. He describes detox as ‘bunk’ and advises to ‘save your money for something useful, fun or pleasant’.

    Detox is still pushed by the social media wellness warriors, most of whom are blessed with enthusiasm and a big following. They also tend not to be burdened with qualifications, let alone professional insurance, but pointing this out is more likely to result in online trolling than contributing to an educational discussion about the activities of the liver.

    Theses influencers probably don’t realise that by promoting detox as something legitimate they are further encouraging false claims to find their way into food offerings. I can live with a detox face wipe but not when the word appears on food labelling. A quick look on Ocado showed detox teas from Twinings, Aduna and Tetley whilst Pack’D make a detox smoothie kit. Thorncroft offer a detox cordial whilst Soupoligie’s spirulina soup is listed as a ‘detox boost soup’ online.

    Health claims on products and in marketing used to be like the wild west as brands could almost say what they wanted about their wares. Foods and supplements used to be marketed with flowery language such as ‘packed with vitamin C’ or ‘great for energy’ which may be compelling words but all too often they were not true. In 2012, after many years of consultations, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published some 250 authorised nutrition claims, along with the precise wording that should be used when taking advantage of the claims. There are claims for individual nutrients in some 25 categories. These range from claims relating to the cardiovascular system, energy, fertility, vision and the immune system.

    So how does ‘detox’ fit in?  In short, it doesn’t.  There have been only a handful of claims submitted to EFSA in respect of detoxification and all have been rejected which means that even the word detox shouldn’t be used or referenced. If you see a food product or a supplement with such claims then they are spurious, or at least dubious and your local Trading Standards office should be alerted. They have more than enough to do than chase down a café making daft claims about your lunch, so I fear detox is here to stay.

    The only things that can lay claim to detoxification are your lungs, bowels, kidneys, liver, skin and urinary tract and all claims around detoxing made by food products should be treated with a hefty pinch of salt.