Oz calls raspberry ketone supplements another “miracle in a bottle to burn your fat.” Again, there’s no proof for this claim. All studies on raspberry ketones have been conducted on rodents or cells, never in people. At the end of a blog post on ShareCare, the website for “quality healthcare information” that Oz co-owns, even he concluded: “Positive early results in the lab can be promising, but these do not always mean the same outcomes will occur in humans.”
Sullivan, Oz’s PR representative, tried to soften the claims. He explained, “An adjective like ‘miracle’ is used as an editorial device to describe anecdotal results, as exemplified by the guests on our show. Our audience are not scientists, and the show needs to be more lively than a dry scientific discussion.” Even with the multiple warnings, the little miracles flew off store shelves.
A legion of doctor-bloggers has dedicated thousands of hours to dissecting and debunking Oz’s claims. One of them is Steven Charlap, a preventive medicine physician in Delray Beach, Fla. “Patients were bringing in shopping carts full of different pills,” Charlap recalls. “When I would ask them, ‘Why do you take a certain pill?’ I found very often, the response was, ‘I heard about it on the Oz show.’ ”
To understand where his patients were getting their health advice, Charlap began watching the program. “I was shocked that someone with his credentials—someone who apparently still operates on patients and therefore must still be fully cognizant of a physician’s first priority, which is to do no harm—would be recommending all types of different pills, many that had never undergone rigorous scientific scrutiny, as miracle cures or magic pills to a very susceptible audience.”
One of the first Oz-approved products Charlap looked into was milk thistle. Oz suggested the supplement as a “quick fix” for nights when you have one too many gin and tonics. The herbal remedy, according to Oz, “boosts your liver’s enzyme function, which helps to detoxify the body from excess alcohol.”
But Charlap noted that while some studies suggest milk thistle may be helpful for people with liver disease, the evidence is unclear on its other health benefits. So when a woman on milk thistle came into Charlap’s clinic for her annual wellness visit, he asked if she had any problems with her liver, an abnormal liver-function test, or any other medically justifiable reason for using the product. The answer was no: She used milk thistle because her “other doctor” told her to do so. She was taking Oz’s medicine.
Oz, Charlap noted, has also encouraged people to take two baby aspirin every night before bed to prevent heart attacks. For people at high risk for coronary heart disease, the authoritative U.S. Preventive Services Task Force would agree with him. But for healthy and older folks, aspirin can have damaging side effects—including bleeding ulcers—which are well-documented and may outweigh any potential benefits. Aspirin can also hurt patients who are on anti-coagulants or who have a history of gastric or stomach ulcers, a warning Oz does not mention on his show. An exasperated Charlap asked: “Where is the ‘first, do no harm’ when he does something like that?
Beyond potential damage to people’s health and purses, this kind of peddling can also foster doubt and mistrust of science. As Edzard Ernst put it: “Prominent people like Oz do have considerable influence. If this influence is used to promote quackery, bogus treatments will seem credible. Using bogus treatments for serious conditions may cost lives.”
Interestingly, for all the health wonders he promotes, Oz himself doesn’t rely on magic pills or quick fixes to maintain his salubrious air. He monitors his weight and exercises daily. According to a New York Times profile, his diet consists of berries, spinach, raw walnuts (soaked in water to “amplify their nutritional benefit”), and a dark green concoction of juices from cucumber and parsley. The Times journalist called it “the most efficient, joyless eating I have ever seen.”
This doesn’t make for good TV, though, which gets at the tension between the worlds of science and entertainment. Science is a process, moving along in increments, with stops and starts, mostly very slowly. As a result, new treatments are usually only slightly better than older ones, actual breakthroughs are rare, and good medicine is often dull. Showmen like Oz, however, must be anything but humdrum—five times every week.
When speaking to us for Maclean’s magazine last year before a Toronto appearance, Oz said he has to mix the low and high, hope and reality, to make sure he attracts enough viewers to stay on the air. He offered raspberry ketone supplements as an example of how he tries to give people hope. “I do actually believe from the data we have so far it could be a nice little nudge. The amount of weight you’ll lose is two, three, four pounds more than you would have. But it’s a nudge.”
He continued: “If you went line by line through the show and try to figure out what part of it is glitzy stuff, like icing on the cake, and what part is the meat of the cake, I bet that’s the right ratio: Three-quarters is meat and potatoes, hard-core stuff you got to do, but that’s the medicine.”