Skepticism

Top 10 Words and Phrases Ruined By Alt Med

I have been out shopping a lot lately. Most people execute their main shopping adventures before the holidays but my little art business keeps me very busy around that time and so it isn’t until after the fact that I even get a chance to hit the grocery store. In the past few days I have been to Target, the local drug store, Vons (grocery), Lowes, The local craft store and Home Depot. Something struck me while I was strolling the isles at these prominent retail locations. Alternative medicine has completely ruined part of the English language (and probably some other languages too depending on translation).
health food

The fact is you really can’t believe what you read on packaging anymore. The bait and switch tactics of alt medicine have become standard practice on retail shelves everywhere. Homeopathy is marketed as medicine and it’s primarily only water people. WATER. Along with the words like homeopathic are the words like “naturalistic” and “holistic” that are meant to sound important and healthy and therefor better. Actual words that once may have meant something specific have been twisted or deluded in an attempt to sell you things you don’t really need and you probably wouldn’t really want if you knew all the facts. It’s come to a point now where if I see certain words on packaging I automatically hesitate and ask myself, whoa are these guys trying to sell me crap at an inflated price? Is someone trying to slip me a department store Mickey?

I have made a list of what I think to be the top 10 misleading words and phrases that have been seized by the marketing departments of imitation medicine. Please feel free to add any I may have missed in the comment section below and… buyer BEWARE. (Fade in spooky music.)

1. All Natural Um, WTF does this even mean? Hasn’t the general population considered the fact that cobra venom is completely natural? Other “all natural” and poisonous items (just to name a few) include; arsenic, cyanide, black widow spiders, jasmine berries, mistletoe berries, oleander leaves, strychnine, hemlock, jellyfish, scorpions, belladonna and pufferfish. Certain parts of potatoes and even too much nutmeg can kill you. All natural doesn’t mean better for you.

2. Green This one really irritates me. It’s a f-ing color people! Green means a mixture of yellow and blue. A part of the color spectrum? Sure. Pretty? Sometimes, yes. But it doesn’t mean that you are stopping global warming with your crappy recycled product. Green doesn’t mean healthy or safe either. If you think it does then please refer to #1.

3. Toxins *Sigh* Yes, there are such things as toxins (or more specifically poisons) but not in the way that the alternative medicine subculture thinks there are. Toxins are not invisible and everywhere or created by our bodies and killing us. We are not storing them until we get a magic pill or Starbucks enema. Whenever you hear someone tell you that their product or regimen “removes toxins” just ask them specifically what toxins and how. The answer, “You know, like environmental toxins like smoke and stuff and out your butt.” is not the correct answer. Our body is quite capable of excreting waste without the use of magical mystery enema toxin removal systems or special homeopathic-naturalistic-supplement system. Also toxins can be quantified. In other words you can test for them (not with a questionnaire). Oh and BTW, you are WAY more likely to overdose on fat-soluble vitamins in some crappy detox supplement than from imaginary environmental toxins.

4. Detox This word is a place and has been hijacked from rockstars. Please return it. If you would like to learn more about the “Detox Scam” please read this lovely article by Steven Novella.

5. Immune Boosting This statement is utter nonsense. You cannot boost your immune system. It doesn’t work that way. It’s not a rocket. If you are a healthy individual your immune system is already “boosted”. I’m not a doctor so I will refer you to one. Please read this immune system article by Mark Crislip on Science-based medicine..

6. Clinically Proven Maybe at one time this meant something but tested in an alt med clinic by Crystal and that guy down the hall doesn’t mean shit.

7. Good for You or Healthy As opposed to what? Says who?

8. Mom Approved Getting knocked up does not give you super powers. In some cases it actually proves you are an idiot. Breeding in itself does not make you smarter. There is no mommy intuition. Sorry Jenny and Airborne Inc., but it’s time to let go of the delusion and get over yourself. Try some good old-fashioned common sense and the scientific method. You might like it!

9. Antioxidant Rich This is one of those tag lines that just won’t die. The most recent science seems to point to the fact that antioxidants don’t actually do anything to help you at all and may in some cases be harmful but marketing companies are still aggressively promoting the unfounded anti-aging health claims. I would also like to know at exactly what amount does something become rich?

10. Organic Aw, the new pet word in marketing offices around the world. Does organic mean better for you? No, but it usually means more expensive. Seriously, would you prefer to pay more for the same tomato with animal urine as pesticide and a higher likelihood of salmonella or that more affordable tomato grown with tried and true bug sprays that have been shown to be safe for human consumption? Yeah, I guess it’s a flip of the coin. If you can afford it go ahead and buy whatever vegetables you want. I myself prefer to support local growers with larger potential crop yields. I also prefer to support companies that aren’t trying to manipulate me with the latest in trendy ad campaigns and buzzwords.

Happy New Year everyone! Wishing you a year filled with love, fun, happiness and as free and far from from hippy crap as possible! Cheers!

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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43 Comments

  1. I agree with you except for #10, and mostly for that too. I think we’ve been applying too many bug sprays & therefore the bugs are getting resistant, so organic means something to the planet, if not this specific tomato. Having said that, megafarms in SoCal are going to be monoculture nightmares with quality control problems whether they are labeled organic or not.

    So yeah. Shop your local farmers market, or failing that, the edges of your grocery store where the food looks like food rather then a cardboard box.

  2. ” Whole Foods has the biggest snake oil section of any grocery store I’ve seen yet.” – Ted Dziuba

    Organic does have a real meaning, but the way it’s used in marketing food is largely meaningless or actually intentionally misleading. Producers regularly lobby USDA for permission to use the Organic label even though they don’t qualify, and fairly often succeed. Look up Organic +Greenwashing.

  3. “6. Clinically Proven Maybe at one time this meant something but tested in an alt med clinic by Crystal and that guy down the hall doesn’t mean shit.”

    THANK YOU. Real medicine is “tested” and “proven” as a matter of course and necessity. It doesn’t need to sell itself as legitimate.

  4. Simple rules for reading food packaging:

    1) Ignore the marketing on front.
    2) Read the nutrition facts and ingredients and make your own evaluation
    a) no more than ~10% cals from fat; b) no more sodium mgs than cals; c) no” bad” fats in ingredients; d) added sugar not appearing in the first few ingredients.

    Look for the word “whole” in front of your grains = wheat flour is just plain ol’ white refined flour.

    Happy Blue Moon Eve

    YSG

  5. I know this might not be well recieved but (well ok maybe here it will be) there is nothing that isn’t natural. If it isn’t natural it…isn’t. Just because it was made in a lab doesn’t make it unnatural, it was made by people who are natural (or by robots who were made by people). Natural may be the dumbest word ever. It means nothing there is no magic line and everything on this side is natural and everything on the other side isn’t. If it is it is natural.

  6. The thinking process evident in the anti vax crowd looks quite similar to the ardent organic local only foodies I’ve talked to. It seems to me that bioengineered food and industrial farming is the only way the world population will be fed in the future. Any notion that widespread organic and locally obtained foods should be a significant portion of our national or world food production appears to be dangerous fantasy thinking at best or a near religious utopian delusion.

  7. @loudlyquiet: I happen to agree with you. I think many people want to think of the word natural as meaning not touched or manipulated by humans. But we have had our hands on pretty much everything at this point and I agree with the point that WE are natural products too.

    It has also been brought to my attention that I could have just said 10 words or phrases ruined by hippies or health advocates. Point taken, but I think the big financial push behind crap marketing has come from big “psudo-pharma”.

  8. @Elyse: I’ve tried to make this point many times, to my parents and others. Often, the justification becomes magical. Many alt-med people have somewhat animist beliefs and the fall-back justification is always ‘energy’ or something similar.

    I’d like to add Re-vitalizing to the list.
    Guess what…you’re already alive. The hemp and goat spit shampoo in the health food market can’t make you more so. Neither can that candy bar, except to the extent that eating keeps you from being dead.

  9. My [un]favourite term that’s been appearing in some cosmetic advert is “serums”. As in ‘you know that serums are beneficial for your skin’. ‘X product with serums’. Huh? [My mind has blanked out the product name; the horror…]

    I remember running across something described as “wholistic”. Please, if you’re going to use a term, make sure it’s spelt correctly. {headbang}

    I don’t completely agree with 10 – I like buying my produce from local farmers; it’s fresher and hence lasts longer. Some of them are certified organic, some aren’t. And the strawberries are juicier than those from the grocery store.

  10. Maybe I’m just being linguistically curmudgeonly, but can’t we leave the word “organic” to its original meaning, as in, originating from life? “Organic vegetable” is just redundant, and I defy anyone to locate a piece of fruit which is inorganic.

  11. @jtradke:
    These days the technical meaning of organic doesn’t relate to whether or not the chemical original, but rather whether or not it contains carbon (with some exceptions).

    Of course, I still agree with your central point. Organic is a word of science, and should stay that way.

  12. Living in a part of the world sustained by farming, I hope the rest of the world doesn’t cotton on to “buy local” or our economy will implode and our farmers will be bankrupt and homeless. There are simply not enough people in our local market area to buy the veggies, wheat, canola, millet, beef, pork milk, etc. that our farmers produce, and not enough arable land in some other countries to feed their population. I might like to live on Walton’s Mountain or Walnut Grove, but I don’t.

    I do buy at farmers’ markets to support local farmers and artisans who have the kind of farms/business that can survive on, or supplement their income this way. However, I also buy coffee from Fair Trade growers in Africa, or “horror” fruit from Safeway (meaning some farmers in Chile or the U.S. can feed their families that day too).

  13. @DominEditrix: I should have qualified that: I prefer the local niche farmers who don’t use spray pesticides, but I don’t insist on “certified” status – around here, that means the soil tests clean of certain lingering chemicals, something almost impossible to attain, what with the winds blowing soil from neighbouring debugging. Having watched the effect on my car’s paint-job when it was incidentally sprayed during one of our fruit fly panics, I’m not thrilled with the idea of such substances being in my stomach.

  14. The meaninglessness of “all natural” was underscored for me few years ago when I saw a featured display of “All Natural Soy Milk” at Whole Foods. How the fuck is soy milk in any meaningful sense natural? Soy plants do not lactate. By definition, it’s a highly processed, artificial concoction.

  15. I’m curious about the antioxidants one. I first heard this term a couple months ago and it immediately set off my warning bells (it’s just got that “fresh out of the woo-oven” smell to it), but Google is only giving me pro- sites.

    Does anyone have some good resources on antioxidants?

  16. @Grimalkin: Here is a link to two reviews of a study on antioxidants and aging with Nematode worms:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7754644.stm
    and
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081201105711.htm

    Long story short, antioxidants don’t do what was initially thought. Studies are still being done. To claim that antioxidants slow aging and prevent cancer is deceptive marketing.

    I would look for more links for you but it’s New Years day and I have a hangover.

  17. Well, I strongly agree with you on some of these but I think that you missed the mark on some others.

    Words often have more than one meaning. American Heritage Dictionary, about as reputable a dictionary as you will find, gives some relevant definitions. ( http://dictionary.reference.com/ )

    – “Green”: “Beneficial to the environment”

    The first Green Party was founded in Germany in 1980. “Green” was used with the connotation of “environmentally friendly”. This is hardly a word that’s going to appear in the “new words of 2009” lists.

    Although of course “environmental friendliness” is a spectrum rather than an absolute, we should be able to make some meaningful distinctions between “more environmentally friendly” and “less environmentally friendly” products.

    – “Organic”: “Of, marked by, or involving the use of fertilizers or pesticides that are strictly of animal or vegetable origin. Raised or conducted without the use of drugs, hormones, or synthetic chemicals.”

    “the new pet word in marketing offices around the world”?? Organic Farming and Gardening magazine was founded in 1942. Not all that “new”.

    Again, not an absolute, but we probably can distinguish “more organic”(in this sense) and “less organic”products.

    Though obviously, as you point out, things may be “Green”, “organic”, or “natural” without necessarily being healthier or more effective for the consumer.

  18. @Elyse: “Coconuts don’t lactate either. You can still drink ‘coconut milk’.”

    So? I’m not objecting to soy milk’s existence or what it’s called, just pointing out the absurdity of the manufacturer tacking on “all natural” as a selling point for a necessarily artificial product.

    “Soy milk is actually not ‘highly processed’. It’s made by soaking soybeans in water, boiling and straining.”

    Yeah, they only soak, mash, heat, strain and boil the soy beans and then emulsify and sometimes fortify the result and add flavorings. Wait, those are all processing techniques!

  19. Amy, I’m with you on most of these but this one made me cock my eyebrow:

    Seriously, would you prefer to pay more for the same tomato with animal urine as pesticide and a higher likelihood of salmonella or that more affordable tomato grown with tried and true bug sprays that have been shown to be safe for human consumption?

    Have pesticides in wide use really been shown to be safe for human consumption? What about their runoff effects. I’d not heard of this.

  20. @FFFearlesss: You have not heard of bug sprays being tested to see if they are safe for human consumption? As for run off effects. I don’t know the science on that so I’m in no position to comment and that wasn’t part of the discussion. The main point is organic meant carbon based (or containing carbon) and now it means something different. There is no evidence that organic vegetables are better for you. There is plenty of evidence that they are more expensive. The meaning of the word has changed to imply “better”. We could also argue that the long term effects of organic farming could cause a food crisis due to lower crop yields, but that’s not the point either.

  21. @Amy: “You have not heard of bug sprays being tested to see if they are safe for human consumption? ”
    ——–
    Pesticides are bad for humans.

    “Most pesticides are man-made chemicals. They are used to control pests such as weeds (herbicides), insects (insecticides), fungi (fungicides), and so forth. Pesticides present in streams, even at very low concentrations, can make the water unsuitable for human consumption or render it toxic to aquatic organisms.”

    They are not safe for human consumption. Trace amounts (residues) of pesticides are all that are considered safe for human consumption, so by that standard, arsenic is safe for human consumption.

    As a marketing term, organic has a specific and clear meaning, and I think that makes it less of a fit in this list than “natural”, which has a vague and unspecific meaning, or “Immune Boosting”, which has no meaning at all.

  22. @sethmanapio: Pesticides allow us to feed poor people. I’m not advocating that you drink them or pour excess amounts in the water supply. Organic veggies have pesticides too, they just make them out of “natural” ingredients like urine . I don’t think either way is perfect. I do think organic insinuates better or healthier and there is no evidence of that.

  23. Thank you so much for this list, Amy! From someone with three kids who is on a tight budget, I get really sick of certain of my friends inisting that I should buy all of this “organic” stuff that is so ridiculously priced.

    My most loathed word on this list, however, is “toxins”. Every time I hear someone say they’re going on a special diet to “flush their system of toxins”, I feel the urge to punch them in the face. Granted, I never actually punch them; the urge is strong, however. From now on, thanks to you, I will ask them which toxins and how.

    Happy New Year!

  24. While I certainly agree that using terms in hopes (usually fulfilled) that people will blindly buy stuff is obnoxious. I tend to buy things that are labeled “all natural” or “organic” – not because they are labeled as such, but because many of those products have simple ingredients (“popcorn, soybean oil, salt” instead of “Popcorn, Partially hydrogenated Soybean oil, Butter, cream,milk, Natural & Artifical flavor, Color added, Perserved with Propyl Gallate”).

    I agree with your point that people should pay attention to what is in something, regardless of what is on the front of the box in bright colors.

  25. @Amy: I’m not advocating that you drink them or pour excess amounts in the water supply.

    ————

    I’m just advocating precision in ranting. “Safe for human consumption” means “safe to be consumed by humans”, not “will not kill you in trace amounts.” This is a quibble, true… I will say no more about it.

    I agree wholeheartedly that organic food is a useless luxury. The real problem with the term is the myth that we have to choose between corporate monoculture farming (which is probably unsustainable in the long term) and “organic” farming. What many people miss is that organic food is grown by the same companies using the same monoculture methods, just with different fertilizers and pesticides. It’s a meaningful word, it just doesn’t mean very much if you’re interested in sustainable agriculture.

  26. Many people hear the words “organic farming” and think this means it’s non-polluting and there’s nothing in there that can harm you.
    In reality, “organic farming” means any farm that only uses those kinds of deadly chemicals that the FDA has put on the list of chemicals you are allowed to use while still calling your farming “organic”.

    Sometimes, that even equates to MORE harmful to the environment AND to the consumer.
    I assume this may be in part due to the fact that the chemical composition of “cow urine” is far less reliable or constant than simply adding a certain percentage/weight/volume of pure, concentrated, laboratory-distilled amonia for example …

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