In humanity’s perpetual race to improve our health, we are inundated with ‘miracle products’ marketed to help us win. Fad diet pills, magic oils, and the unnecessary evils of gluten and genetically modified food have all been positioned as the next big thing on the healthiness horizon.

However, many of these products are marketed as beneficial without any legitimate scientific proof to back such claims. The blurred line between legitimate health benefits (and risks) and speculative, unproven claims is both confusing and dangerous to consumers. This line is further compromised by compelling personalities like Dr. Oz and Jeffrey Smith, who often make controversial and potentially dangerous claims without supporting evidence.

Dr. Oz is a renowned cardiac surgeon and television host in the United States. He has degrees from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania and directs the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at the New York Presbyterian Hospital. On his television show, he often advocates alternative approaches to conventional medicine. Such alternatives have included weight-loss fasts, therapy techniques meant to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals, and the dismissal of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) used in agriculture.

Dr. Oz defended his decision to hawk such alternatives in a recent feature in the New Yorker magazine. He argues that modern medicine is a ‘civil war waged between conventional physicians and those who are open to alternative cures for maladies ranging from anxiety to cancer’ and that ‘his mission [is] to walk the line that divides them’.

In an article from the New York Times in 1995, Oz was described as feeling ‘ethically obliged’ to consider and apply ‘new approaches that might improve the quality of life of cardiac patients’, such as meditation and reiki, in combination with traditional medical techniques. But today, as he lords over a huge entertainment empire and is revered as ‘America’s doctor’, his ethical obligations are under fire, particularly as he is seen as a television personality and entertainer over and above a medical practitioner.

Medical experts (and even his own colleagues) worry that he has prioritized entertainment value over scientific proof. Dr. Pieter Cohen, a Harvard researcher who was invited to be a guest on Dr. Oz’s show, believes that by using his medical authority to back dubious products, Dr. Oz is ‘fundamentally doing a disservice to [his] viewers’ by making it near impossible for them to ‘distinguish what’s evidence-based and what’s not’.

When Jeffrey Smith, an aggressive anti-GMO activist, was a guest on Dr. Oz’s program, none of his fellow guests (all scientists and doctors) were willing to share the stage with him because of his controversial claims. Despite scientific studies supporting the safety of GMOs – including one backed by 25 years of research conducted by the European Union – some people remain unconvinced. Among Smith and his cohorts, fears include the long-term environmental risks and health risks (such as new food allergies) potentially posed by GMOs.

The controversy surrounding GMOs takes root in their potential for good, potential that is jeopardized by unproven claims that GMOs are harmful. GMOs are used to help crops resist viruses, grow faster, tolerate extreme weather conditions, lessen damage to the environment, and increase nutrition. Their application increases yields and decreases costs for farmers. According to a recent article in Forbes magazine, 70% of food products in American stores contain GMOs.

As a consumer of both food and media, I’m certainly swayed by products that claim powerful health benefits. My refrigerator currently contains a liquid concoction advertised as a ‘green machine’. I have Berocca and an immune-system-targeted vitamin combination on my bedside. I don’t particularly understand the benefits – if any – these products may have on my health. But they’ve been marketed as beneficial, even necessary, a message to which I at least have responded. It is clear that the incredibly powerful marketing structures behind such products, and their sheer proliferation, has saturated our surroundings to the extent that it becomes exhausting to even think about researching every single claim a particular health product makes.

While alternative therapies should be considered and a healthy suspicion of scientific theories should be entertained, scientific proof needs to be prioritized above idle speculation. Figures like Oz and Smith, who use sensationalist messages to reach audiences, subvert their authority as educators and health advocates. Because, in the end, ambiguity surrounding the true health benefits (or danger) of the products we consume is harmful for everyone.

Photo credit: Nicky S.

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