Health and diet fads being promoted on social media, including products like “flat tummy teas,” have nutritionists and marketing experts reminding consumers to beware.
Celebrity and social-media “influencer” advertisements have sparked a number of trends in the realm of natural health and dieting products, some of which can have harmful side effects, experts say.
When celebrities don’t disclose that they don’t actually use products they are promoting or the ingredients within them, consumers are left to fill in the gaps.
“You see more than one celebrity talking about a product, you think maybe it’s true if everyone’s doing it, especially if the websites and the companies don’t do anything to clarify that they’re not actually what they claim to be,” said Joey Hoegg, a professor who is a specialist in marketing and behavioural science at the University of British Columbia.
From a health perspective, the claims are equally problematic, says another expert.
“Some of these natural-health products are not regulated, so we don’t know exactly how much [of each ingredient] is in there,” said Tanya Choy, a renal dietician at Saint Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
For example, “FlatTummyTea,” a brand that promotes teas as a way to reduce bloat, contains an herbal laxative called senna, used by health professionals to treat constipation.
When taken over prolonged periods, this product throws off the body’s natural functioning.
“The senna leaf can cause the bowel to stop functioning normally and might cause a dependence on laxatives,” said Choy. “These claims [to reduce bloat] have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, and I did not see any evidence to support the ingredients.”
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Even with regulations requiring the disclosure of paid promotions on social media, consumers often ignore this fact when making purchases.
“They know they’re ads or they acknowledge they’re ads, but there’s still that idea that ‘It might work for me’. Most weight-loss programs don’t work, but it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry and people still try,” said Hoegg.
In many regards, celebrities act as a reference group for consumers.
“For most people, celebrities are an aspirational reference group. We compare ourselves upward to them,” said Hoegg.
On social media, this type of comparison pushes consumers to seek ways to be more like their favourite celebrities and influencers.
Gwyneth Paltrows infamous blog “Goop” is one example of the far-reaching influence of controversial natural-health trends. Hoegg says that the only thing people can do to counter the social media hype is to “do everything we can to debunk them, [because] they are harmful to people, and it is preying on people who aren’t informed.”
With the increase in influencers and celebrities pushing supposed miracle products onto consumers comes a need to combat dangerous trends with science.
“I wouldn’t pay $65 for four weeks for ingredients that aren’t backed up by evidence,” said Choy.
When it comes to using natural-health products, Choy advised people to “turn to a health professional, so they can do the homework for you. This includes looking at the different ingredients inside the products, and what to watch out for, [because] each person is different.”