Are we stewing in our own juices?

Updated: 2015-03-03 06:38

(HK Edition)

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There isn't a magic pill to get instant detox and an hour-glass figure. Period. And yet people get taken in by advertizing hoaxes. Wang Yuke reports.

Una Xu had never felt very well. The 26-year-old, in Australia for postgraduate studies, has experienced low blood sugar and low blood pressure since childhood. She has a mild heart condition. She received conventional medical treatment but her health problems persist.

She saw a product advertised on social media, promising "saline water detoxification". Celebrities were endorsing. "They applauded this way of detoxification, saying it could help flatten the lower abdomen." She was inspired even further by a TV program that invited experts to speak about healthy lifestyles.

In 2009 the British charity Sense About Science carried out a survey among manufacturers of 15 products sold in pharmacies and supermarkets, under the label "detox". "No two companies seem to use the same definition of 'detox'. Little, and in most cases no, evidence was offered to back up the detox claims," the charitable group reported under the headline - Debunking Detox.

The word "detoxification" is not even found in the vocabulary of dieticians.

"From a dietitian's point of view, there is no detoxifying diet to speak of, because our body has already done a good job at cleansing toxins," says Sylvia Lam, chairperson of Hong Kong Dietitians' Association. Our sophisticated system naturally removes toxins through kidney, liver, sweat, skin and lymphatic system. The exception, says Lam, are patients with symptoms, such as short guts syndrome and kidney failure, who have to resort to external aids like hemodialysis but there is no "detoxification" in that sense.

Medical experts hold that if the liver, kidneys and sweat glands failed to excrete toxins, the condition would likely prove fatal. And yet people want to believe false advertising claims.

"Customers hope the product can fulfill their wishes or achieve the perfect result," Dr. Paul Pang, a registered clinical psychologist, told China Daily. "Technically it is called 'selective comprehension'," he explained. "It means customers interpret messages in line with their beliefs, attitude, motives and experience."

Often the misleading claims of advertisers of alternative healthcare products are harmless. Some products are placebos that have no nutritive or medicinal value. Sometimes the products, if used blindly or obsessively, can lead to disaster. That's close to what happened to Una Xu.

"Nausea came over me but I vomited nothing. I lost my appetite and ate nothing for an entire day. I lay in bed, other than when I had to race for the toilet. I couldn't even stand on my feet on my own, I needed someone else to lift me into bed," recalls Xu.

"Since early morning, when I gulped down my first glass of salt water until noon, I went to the toilet more than 10 times," She recalled, "In the end, I passed out nothing but clear liquid.

"I convinced myself my intestines must have been cleansed and the toxins been wiped out."

Xu remembers she was near fainting a few times, but luckily, she recovered consciousness thanks to shots of sugared water supplied by her mom. Today Xu describes her detoxification experience as a "painful adventure".

Lam cautions that overconsumption of salt water could trigger electrolyte disorder and overdose of fluids could lead to heart failure. Some people practice detoxification by fasting and drinking juice only. "Drinking juice in excess could have fructose converted into fat. Surplus fat that ends up staying in the liver could lead to chronic diseases, like diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and heart disease," Lam stresses.

Insincere claims

Punch Detox, a brand in Hong Kong offering a juice cleansing program, took off in 2013. The manufacturers claim that after a three-day detoxifying juice diet, people will forgo bad eating habits, lose their craving for unhealthy food, and may be weaned off junk foods and alcohol.

Punch Detox was the brainchild of Angela Cheng Matsuzawa and her partner Ann Cha. Cheng received her MBA from Harvard Business School and devotes herself to marketing luxury brands, skin care and fashion products all around the world. Cha got the professional diploma from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. Only organic fruits and vegetables go into their Hong Kong product.

"I don't buy it. In my eyes, (the claim that) 'three days can change eating habits' is a stunt," concedes Edmund Li, associate professor at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Hong Kong.

He figures, to most people, the three-day detoxification program is anything but a sustainable adjustment to their routine diet.

"Changing eating habits happens when you will it," he stresses, "There's no short-cut to kicking out an unhealthy diet, otherwise, addiction wouldn't be a long-standing issue."

Lam, the registered dietician, outright rejects the claim too. "Scraping by three days or longer without chewing on anything is an abnormal way of life," Lam says. "The craving for foods would bounce back more intensively, coaxing us into binge eating."

Punch Detox's popularity, partially, comes down to its successful marketing and branding, observes Steve Bruce, managing director of a marketing consultancy based in Hong Kong.

"The testimonial can be the number one selling point for a business," Bruce remarks. "I find Punch Detox excelling at designing its testimonials, probably by taking advantage of the 'herd mentality' we find in people."

Pang, the psychologist, shed a light on Bruce's point. "Even if people don't trust a certain product in the beginning, if public reviews tell them it is indeed a good product, their chances of going forward to get a hands-on experience increase."

Celebrity endorsement is a common tactic for seducing potential new customers. "The appearance of celebrities on advertisements boosts sales," Pang explains, "Celebrities and experts can be a reference when people have no knowledge about a product."

But a close look at the feedback reveals a number of reviews that are vague and puzzling.

Bruce picks up one remark high up on the list - "I'm feeling lighter, free and a welcome change in my perspective about daily life. The juices are lovingly made and delicious in-and-of themselves, which was a big part of getting through the cleanse"

"It sounds plausible on the surface, but it says nothing," Bruce continues, "There are no clinical test results before or after the cleansing.

"To my knowledge, a professional detox company would have their clients' blood and BMI tested before and after." A visible comparison of those indexes would render solid proof for the efficacy of the product.

Bruce also notes that three-day detox is manageable, "but how many people carry on? We have no clue from the feedback."

"Marketers cater to lazy people who want a 'magic pill'." Bruce says. "In our grandparents' and parents' generations, when an old saying prevailed in China - 'walking a hundred steps after meal ensures longevity' - one would take cues from one's ancestors. But we just don't do it now or don't have the time."

Marketers have been cashing in on people flipping for quick remedies, introducing various diet fads.

"Today, people are too impatient in terms of attaining a healthy body," Li, the professor, says, "They are dying to see tangible outcomes and harvest drastic improvement."

"Markets also pick up on the fact that buying the so-called 'healthy' products is like buying luxuries," Bruce adds. Spending on healthy goods is a symbol of social stature, purchasing power and elitism.

"A business stands a better chance to succeed if it has acquired a qualification," Bruce adds. Punch Detox has an edge over its rivals as "the two founders of Punch Detox both graduated from eminent universities (Harvard and Columbia Business School). They gain wide recognition because people believe they are credible."

No shortcuts

Lam believes there is no crash course for changing unhealthy eating habits. "A shift in behavior or habits entails repeated practice and continuous reinforcement," she declares.

Even Lam herself, as a dietitian, cannot stick to a rigid dietary regimen. "I just spent my vacation in Koh Samui, Thailand for nine days. When I was there, I didn't touch coffee and went vegetarian. I felt refreshed and often bragged about my will power to go on a green diet. But after I came back to Tsim Sha Tsui, the familiar environment, my old habits came back full circle."

Lam says HK$1,680 spent on the three-day cleansing program to buy 18 bottles of juice, is more than enough to buy fresh fruits for at least a month, based on the international nutrition standard.

"Eating varied foods as much as possible and enjoying your every bite is the pinnacle of healthy eating, because we're all born to eat," Lam suggests.

"Eating everything you like - French Fries, chicken nuggets, donuts, creamy cakes, dodgy jams - but always in moderation is the golden rule for keeping healthy and maintaining a good figure."

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Are we stewing in our own juices?

Are we stewing in our own juices?

(HK Edition 03/03/2015 page7)