Supplements That Don't Work. Why Do We Buy Them

dieting nutrition supplements Sep 15, 2020

If detox teas don’t work, why is the industry worth billions of dollars?

 If the majority of supplements aren’t necessary for optimal health, why is the global supplement market still continuing to rise?

 As humans, we are often pulled by our emotions, not logic. Have you ever gotten back together with an ex who you know is no good? Stayed out late instead of getting to sleep so you're recharged for tomorrow? Point made.

 We care about how we look and we care about or health. So much so, that we get pretty damn emotional about it.

 If we’re feeling bad about ourselves and someone offers a solution, we want to believe that it will work. Unfortunately, we are our own worst enemies.


Cognitive Biases and Heuristic Processing

There are flaws in the way that our brain processes information to produce decisions and judgements. Our thought processes are subject to a number of cognitive biases and the worst part is this:

 We’re not even aware that they are happening.

  1. Confirmation bias: We are more likely to focus on and believe information if it confirms our preconceptions, i.e. beliefs that we already hold.

  2. Availability cascade: When a collective belief becomes more common in public discourse and therefore more believable; a self-reinforcing process.

  3. Bandwagon effect: The tendency to do or believe things that others do or believe. This is also referred to as the herd mentality.

  4. Continued influence effect: The tendency to believe wrong information that we currently believe, even after it has been corrected. Misinformation can still influence our judgments and decisions, even in the face of conflicting evidence.

  5. Irrational escalation: The phenomenon where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on the build up of prior investments over time, despite new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong.

  6. Authority bias: The tendency to be more influenced by the opinion of an authority figure as we assume them to be more accurate.

  7. Illusion of truth effect: We are more likely to believe a statement to be true if it is something we have previously heard; a person is more likely to believe a familiar statement than an unfamiliar one.


These are just a number of biases that our minds are subject to when we are interpreting information and processing thoughts. Here’s how the detox/supplement industries work:

 They appeal to our emotions and vulnerabilities by offering a simple solution to something we are insecure about. We want for this to work (wishful thinking) and the guy selling the supplements seems to know what he’s talking about, so we believe him (authority bias).

 As we start taking the supplements, we are looking for positive benefits and we put this down to the teas we’re drinking or the powders we’re consuming (confirmation bias). Your friends hop on the bandwagon (herd mentality) and the supplements gain popularity (availability cascade). The word spreads and more and more people become invested in the idea because it sounds familiar (illusion of truth effect). Even in the face of conflicting information, i.e. that the given supplement or tea does not do what it purports to do, we stick to our initial belief (continued influence effect). We are continually exposed to evidence that supplements do not work but we keep buying into them, because we’ve already invested so much into the idea (irrational escalation).

 Our biases are so strong that we are supporting a billion dollar industry that is completely unsupported by scientific evidence.

 No randomised controlled trials have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of commercial detox diets in humans[1]. A popular thermogenic dietary supplement did not result in superior weight or fat loss over 6 weeks of supplementation[2].

 Detox teas and supplements also come at a cost, both financially and with potential health risks. These products are marketed with very vague claims, which makes them difficult to regulate. As a result, it is not uncommon for products to be tainted with harmful ingredients[3].

 Everyone wants the easy answer and no one wants to believe they are wrong.

 We are only human after all.

 But we’re not doing ourselves any favours. Being aware of your biases may help you to think more rationally.

 Be smarter than your emotions.

 Diet Smart, Not Hard.