With negative reports regarding detox appearing in the media and claims regulations becoming more restrictive, Jane Wolfe takes a look at how the market is modifying in order to survive
Over the past few years there seems to have been a concerted attempt from various ‘skeptic’ groups to discredit detoxi-fication and the science behind it, with a spate of negative stories appearing in the press questioning its validity. The so-called ‘detox myth’ is based on the premise that the idea of ‘detox’ is meaningless. Add to this increasingly restrictive health claims regulations and you may wonder if the sector is healthy enough to survive. According to Dr Robert Verkerk, executive and scientific director of the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH), the people pushing this anti-detox campaign state that nothing has been demonstrated to provide a detoxification effect beyond our body’s existing organs and metabolic processes; that nothing you can take naturally is able to enhance our inbuilt detoxification systems. “The reality is that there is copious evidence showing the role of specific nutrients that, for example, regulate enzyme systems associated with detoxifi-cation,” he explains. Although the body has inbuilt detoxification systems to cope with the toxins it produces, in an increasingly toxic world we are producing higher levels as well as having to cope with external toxins, for example from foods and environmental pollutants, so these systems increasingly need a bit of a boost. And this is where detoxing comes in. As Sebastian Pole, herbal director at Pukka, says: “A toxin is anything that accumulates in your body that doesn’t serve any healthy purpose – and that needs to be removed.” Pole sees detoxing from an Ayurvedic and traditional herbal medicine point of view: “If you accumulate too much heat in your body, for example, you get inflam-matory problems, so that heat needs to be removed – and there are various ways of doing that. Traditionally you would take herbs called alteratives that help alter the blood chemistry or the functioning of a body organ or system; this is why a lot of herbs are talked about as being blood cleansers, for example, or kidney cleansers or liver cleansers. And using these herbs can help give you a greater threshold so you can tolerate more of these so-called toxic qualities.” “Many people are taking herbs for detoxification purposes,” explains Verkerk. “The scientific evidence on herbs like milk thistle and its very specific liver protective functions is unquestionable – it’s extremely conclusive. Also if you look at green tea and curcumin, the evidence is extraordinarily robust. There’s also great evidence for B vitamins and a number of co-factors associated with them, and alpha lipoic acid as a co-factor is extremely important. There are hundreds of research papers for each of these ingredients … Frankly, it’s really unfortunate that the people who have stimulated the debate refuse to engage with the science, because there is such a large amount of science on it.”
What’s in a name?
Verkerk says that the detox sector is also coming under threat in other ways. “With more government authorities around Europe taking on board the highly limiting scientific substantiation require-ments of the European Food Safety Authority, more com-panies are being challenged for claims made either via brand names or elsewhere on packaging or advertising. Detox claims are becoming increasingly vulnerable, and as we speak companies using these in the UK, Denmark and other EU Member States are being challenged.” And the word ‘detox’ itself is coming under fire, leading to even more regulation red tape when attempting to market new products. “The word detox is also now under threat and that’s been one of the elements pushed by some of these skeptic groups, but it’s now feeding very much into the minds of regulators,” explains Verkerk. “Firstly, under the nutrition and health claims regulation the word detox is definitely a health claim – if it’s not a medicinal claim – if it was used prior to July 2007. Assuming that a government thinks detoxifi-cation isn’t a medicinal claim but a health claim for foods, then you can still use it, but when bringing a new product onto the market you can’t. This is one of the reasons why we’re seeing fewer products. “So, it’s the regulatory process plus a skeptic movement-inspired negative media campaign that is having an effect, and all of that is happening while the actual science on detoxifi-cation and the use of foods and concentrated nutrients is increasing in strength – it’s the ultimate irony really.” Shona Wilkinson, head nutritionist at The Nutri Centre, London, has definitely seen a change in attitude towards the word detox. “It’s very untrendy to use the word now,” she says. So how would The Nutri Centre describe the sector? “Well, that’s the catch. The new Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation is very strict about what you can and can’t say – and detox is one of the words it won’t allow. Lots of companies aren’t following this legislation which is why you’ll still see it everywhere. But we still need to sell the product somehow. “We were trying to think of an alternative, so we applied for the word cleansing but we’re not allowed to use that either, so it does give us a problem. We’re going to approach it by saying ‘reinventing yourself’, ‘revamping yourself’, rather than cleansing and detox. We’re doing this partly because of legislative reasons and partly because of consumer trends – the word detox is a bit of a no word at the moment.”
So, how are these factors affecting sales of detox products in health stores? Randi Henderson from Elixir Health in Wadebridge has certainly felt the effects: “We used to sell loads of detox plans and packages but that’s almost died a death. We hardly sell any now – there’s been so much negative press in the last few years about detoxing – it’s pretty annoying. When you read so much nonsense in the papers it’s a shame, but we’ve lost that market.” Detox may be declining in more rural areas but it seems to still be thriving in cities, perhaps due to the perception that there are more pollutants and potential toxins. Janet Barnett from Barnett Wholefoods in Liverpool hasn’t noticed a drop in demand from her customers. “We get a lot of young men coming in realising they’ve been drinking too much; many want to join the Forces or are starting a new job and they’ve got to clean certain substances out of their systems – that is why milk thistle is such a big seller here.” From a producer’s angle, Pukka hasn’t noticed a negative reaction either. “We have been growing through the support of the independent health food trade ever since we launched. I think it’s about the way in which you communicate with your community – your customers – about the benefits and the quality of your products,” explains Sebastian Pole. He admits that Pukka is slightly strangled by Nutritional and Health Claim Regulation in terms of what it can communicate to people, but believes it’s all about good education and having a great relationship with customers.
So is the detoxification market adapting in any way to face these new challenges and keep future demand from flagging? Shona Wilkinson says that although she hasn’t seen a decline in demand for products, she has seen a change in what people want. “People won’t necessarily buy a product that says ‘detox’ on it now – they want a more natural approach. The whole emphasis is on gentle and natural rather than a real harsh detox.” She says that chlorella and spirulina are her best sellers. “These are huge at the moment – we’re selling loads, and because juicing is quite trendy and you can get these in powder form, people are just chucking them into their juices. Wheatgrass and barley grass are also really popular,” she adds. Medical herbalist Dee Atkinson from Napiers in Edinburgh, says: “Interest-ingly, many cultures have traditional times of fasting or of using ‘spring cleanse’ herbs. Historically we used teas and even ales made from nettle, dandelion and cleavers, which are now part of some detox or ‘clean’ blends. I think companies are always looking for new ways to market products and avoid falling into the minefield of legislation regarding making claims or selling foods versus medicines.” Without doubt, one of the most popular single detox herbs is milk thistle; however this is also coming under threat. “Milk thistle has been banned as a food supplement in Sweden and they’re trying to ban it in the UK because they’re trying to push it as a THR product. What you’ve got to recognise is that many of the THR products are inferior to the food supplement ones,” explains Verkerk. Although helpful for eliminating toxins, detox products aren’t a total solution on their own, and need to be used in conjunction with other lifestyle changes. When customers come into Barnett’s store wanting to detox she gives them balanced advice on diet and improving their lifestyle too. “We don’t sell detox products as a magical cure because you have to keep them in context don’t you? They’re a tool to help an overall detoxing regime.” Atkinson agrees: “Perso-nally, I don’t like the way ‘detox’ has become a marketing tool. Some of the products that I have seen advertised simply will not work, and it encourages people to look for miracle cures. As our store is integrated with our clinic we try to use the ‘detox’ concept to encourage people to visit a nutritionist or herbalist and look at their eating habits, and lifestyle patterns.” “I do think detoxification needs to be looked at in the whole context of health and you need to look after your digestion and take rejuvenative tonics as well – I don’t think detoxification is something that should happen in isolation to strengthening and building your health,” says Pole. “It’s a balance of pouring out the toxins and then nourishing or rejuvenating the body.”
When to cleanse?
Detoxing often only crosses people’s minds when they know they’re likely to overdo it, for example when the Christmas party season approaches – but how helpful is this? “There is no doubt that the detox industry has been built around this notion of getting people to detox from time to time, particularly after Christmas. I think we need to see a modification of that which is more in line with the science, so that detoxing is either on a permanent basis to support this toxic overload or on a more regular basis, and not just in January,” says Verkerk. Henderson believes that detoxing just after Christmas isn’t the right time: “A little bit closer to spring is much better for the body as far as detoxing goes.” Pole says that detoxing is something he’d encourage people to do a few times a year, seasonally. “It isn’t something that I would recommend someone does all the time, but definitely don’t just do it after Christmas because we accumulate a build-up of unmetabolised waste all the time. I think these herbs help us come back within our constitutional threshold and we can then tolerate extra stress, whether that be a virus or a bacteria, an emotional impact or too much chocolate.” So how do you know if you need to detox? “A liver function test is probably the most solid and widely accepted marker to tell if you’re in need of a detox,” says Verkerk, “but feeling sluggish, not waking up feeling vital, having black rings under your eyes – there are a whole range of signals, but probably people’s vitality is a pretty good indicator.”
A weighty issue
The diet and detox categories are closely linked as many products recommended for detox also claim to help with weight management. In addition, a lot of toxins are retained by the fat in the body, so when you lose weight many of these are released into the body. According to data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, the obesity epidemic in England is continuing, with just 34% of men and 39% of women having a healthy BMI in 2011, and 65% of men and 58% of women now thought to be overweight or obese. These figures have serious health implications, with the same report showing that in 2011, 53% of obese men and 44% of obese women had high blood pressure, and that from 2011-12, 11,736 hospital admissions were due to obesity – an 11-fold increase compared to 2001-2002. The weight management segment is still a steady performer for a lot of retailers, but as with detox, there’s a change of focus. “Weight management pro-ducts are a bit of a constant and I think that’s always going to carry on, but with a slight change in the ingredients. Raspberry key-tones and green coffee bean extract are the big sellers at the moment, whereas before it might have been caffeine-based products or guarana,” says Shona Wilkinson. Janet Barnett has also seen sales remain steady and says that, as with detox, she doesn’t push slimming pro-ducts as a magical cure: “The things we sell work because we make sure they are used as part of a lifestyle change.”
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