Experts weigh in on the lollipops, detox teas and hair gummies that have taken over Instagram
Kim Kardashian West’s Instagram is a collage of rose-colored beauty shots, family photos and not-so-subtle product placements, promoting everything from her own fragrance lines to cosmetics. She recently made headlines for posting an Instagram featuring an appetite suppressant lollipop made by Flat Tummy Co. Many, including actress Jameela Jamil, were displeased with the star’s endorsement of the weight loss product, citing her influence on young women as a reason to be more responsible.
Still, Kardashian West’s post was probably not the first time most of her followers had been exposed to a suspect supplement. Americans spend roughly $32.5 billion on dietary supplements that include weight loss products and herbal vitamins. By 2022, the entire global dietary supplement market is expected to become a nearly $220.3 billion industry — almost double its value in 2016.
While the Food and Drug Administration regulates the industry, they are defined as a “category of food” rather than a drug, and consequently, fall under different approval standards. “The FDA puts the onus on the supplement producers to prove efficacy and safety as opposed to drugs,” said Mary Jane Detroyer, a registered dietitian and nutritionist. According to the FDA website, supplements are “not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent or cure diseases,” contrary to the standards placed upon drugs.
The actual effectiveness of dietary supplements remains a gray area. “If you looked at the dietary supplement industry throughout the years, you’d find that they’re always promoting these products for things like weight loss because its something everyone is interested in,” said Leah Mark, a registered dietitian and nutritionist. “But they can be gimmicks.”
We asked a group of experts to take a closer look at a few celebrity-endorsed products to see which, if any, are actually worth spending money on.
Appetite suppressants are potentially dangerous to consumers
After the backlash to her original post, Kardashian West edited the caption of her post to remove references to appetite suppressants. Her original Instagram celebrated the Flat Tummy Co. lollipop, which consists of cane sugar, brown rice syrup, saffron extract and natural flavors. According to the brand’s website, the suckers will help “kick cravings” and suppress appetite. Stella Metsovas, a clinical nutritionist, finds the claims without merit. “I cannot find any benefits to help offset appetite,” she wrote in an email. A recent study suggested that saffron extract can perhaps reduce the risk of over-snacking, though there is a lack of sufficient evidence proving the connection.
“When people engage in products that cause rapid weight loss, what we’ve seen over and over again in clinical trials is that they end up gaining the weight back once they stop taking the products.” — Leah Mark, registered dietitian
Detroyer said most appetite suppressants work as a placebo effect and have no direct benefit to users. In the long-term, these products can also have the exact opposite effect, Mark said. “When people engage in products that cause rapid weight loss, what we’ve seen over and over again in clinical trials is that they end up gaining the weight back once they stop taking the products,” she said. “The body is trying to re-stabilize homeostasis and does so by absorbing more of the nutrients coming from food and products and storing it as fat tissue.”
Some suppressants are also stimulant-based, Mark said, which only increase the concern over its use. “Caffeine-based appetite suppressants are extremely dangerous for your heart or organs. Caffeine is fine in moderation, but other stimulants like Chinese herbs or tea products in excess can cause diarrhea, electrolyte disturbances, rapid heartbeat, and counteract general health,” she said.
Doctors may sometimes prescribe drugs to curb appetites in obese patients under medical care, but Mark stresses that there can be harmful effects for those who are trying to lose weight without professional help.
Detox teas are ineffective — but they may have a side benefit
Companies like Fit Tea sell 14- and 28-day detox teas, marketing themselves as products that will help rid the body of toxins and help “maintain your fitness goals.” But be wary of the word toxin.
“Toxins are, by definition, poisonous chemicals produced by organisms such as plants or bacteria which can cause disease or death in humans,” Steven Trasino, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at Hunter College, said in an email. “In the case of the consumer diet and supplement industry, the term ‘toxin’ has nothing to do with the medical definition but was invented by marketing executives to sell products. As of today, there is not one study or reputable piece of scientific evidence that these ‘toxins’ exist.”
Tea detoxes don’t work because the toxins that are marketed to be removed are non-existent. “When you look at scientific journals that have evaluated these claims, no one can come up with a cohesive answer as to what’s being detoxified,” Mark said.
Detox teas may have some benefits, but not for obvious reasons, said Detroyer, adding that they function much like cleanses. By choosing tea over junk foods, you may be helping your body overall, she said. “I don’t know that I’d call it a detox, however.”
According to its website, Fit Tea, once endorsed by celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Amber Rose and Sarah Hyland, is made up of organic green tea, oolong wu yi and garcinia cambogia extract. “The good thing is that it includes polyphenols that are naturally occurring micronutrients from plants known to boost health,” Metsovas said. These benefits could include protection against conditions like cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, one study found. Mark, however, remains skeptical of its effectiveness. “It’s not possible for vitamins and minerals to detoxify the body.”
Some detoxification teas also claim the benefit of weight loss, but this, too, is unlikely. As Mark put it, substituting a food with tea would reduce a person’s caloric intake and technically reduce their weight. But as soon as that person’s back to eating solid foods again, the weight will return.
And, often times, weight loss through “detox” tends to be the result of a loss of water weight, which will return to the body as you hydrate, Detroyer said. For instance, dandelion root, an ingredient commonly found in teas, works as a diuretic but would only cause temporary water loss via urination, she said.
These products are packed with supposed super foods, which is what makes them attractive. But ultimately, these supplements have a limited capacity, as does the body’s ability to benefit. “When you put all of these elements in one package, your body only has a limited amount of resources available to absorb all of them,” she said.
Nail and hair growth vitamins are often unnecessary
Vitamins that promote the growth of nails and hair are some of the most common celebrity endorsements on social media — but they have their own dangers. SugarBearHair, endorsed by celebs like Emily Ratajkowski and Vanessa Hudgens, is one of the more popular brands.
Brands like SugarBearHair publicize their inclusion of a nutrient known as biotin, which can promote growth, Mark said. “However, we get more than enough [biotin] in all the foods we eat, even if you have a poor diet.” Salmon, eggs and avocado are just a few foods rich in the micronutrient. Moreover, there is no actual scientific evidence that large doses of biotin supplements actually improve hair health, Trasino added. “Any reports of benefit are simply anecdotal.”
In the case of SugarBearHair, consumption could be potentially dangerous. A recent Buzzfeed report found high levels of lead in the brand’s vitamin composition — consuming just three bears surpasses California’s Maximum Allowable Dose Levels.
For those suffering from poor hair or nail quality, Mark recommends seeing a doctor to find out if you have an iron deficiency, as biotin deficiencies are extremely rare.
The bottom line: Context matters
While many celebrity-endorsed supplement products escape the drug standards of the FDA, Trasino emphasized that use of supplements ultimately depends on context. Pregnant mothers or vegans are a few examples in which iron supplements may help, he said. But “in most circumstances, whole foods can provide us with all the vital nutrients we need to live and thrive,” he added.
It’s important for consumers to educate themselves before relying on these products, Detroyer said. “If [a person] wants to take one, it’s important to speak to a professional or dietitian or look at the research. What people see on Instagram or Twitter is not based on research,” she said. “I know people who spend over $100, $200, or ever $500 a month on supplements — they could probably save all that money and go on a vacation.”