Woo With Water

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Mefiante (January 09, 2007, 18:44:17 PM):
Water, being indispensable to life as we know it, has long been studied by man in order to get a handle on its chemical and physical properties, some of which are still not fully understood. For example, you may be amazed to read that under suitably controlled conditions it is possible to heat water at atmospheric pressure to beyond 200 °C (yes, that’s a leading “2”) at which point it explosively turns to steam. Do not try this at home.

Given water’s central rôle in our day-to-day existence, it is hardly surprising that, amidst genuine efforts to understand this common liquid, much flummery emerges as a by-product. The common forms of such swindles involve water retaining special forms of energy for release on demand, “adjusting” the shapes or structures of water molecules or “clusters” thereof, or infusing water with other special properties (e.g. mood memories à la Masaru Emoto) that are claimed to yield some measurable and usually beneficial effect. Homeopathy springs readily to mind here.

The main reason for raising the subject here is that a product called “CellFood” seems to be grabbing the attention of many of South Africa’s less critically minded people. Among CellFood’s many glowing claims is that it provides an abundance of oxygen at the cellular level through a “proprietary water-splitting technology.” This, no doubt, will be a shocking revelation to physicists and chemists who labour under the clearly mistaken impression that water dissociation takes a great deal of energy. Biologists will be equally stunned to learn that the hydrogen from the dissociated water is completely inert at the cellular level, perhaps simply disappearing without a trace.

Now it is possible that CellFood does indeed provide a nett health benefit since it is claimed to contain 129 nutrients (minerals, enzymes and amino acids). However, the types and dosages of these nutrients are not given, and CellFood’s effect on health is to be gauged by clinical trials, which are not in evidence. Further suspicion is warranted by its reliance on the water-oxygen-cell claims, and the furtherance of the outdated idea that muscle fatigue (stiffness) is the result of lactic acid build-up, instead of microtears of the muscle fibres.

The CellFood product has supposedly been studied at the University of Pretoria and resulted in a much-advertised slimming product called “O2-Lean.” The details of the Tuks study are unknown to me, but it is a fairly safe bet that the improvements noted in users of CellFood were at best marginal, and, as is their custom, the marketing types likely took the carefully phrased, tentative study results and turned them into ironclad facts for public, er…, consumption.

My efforts to collect some sense about such water woo has turned up this very useful resource that deals with a variety of chemistry follies, and has a whole section on water. Also, here (PDF – requires Acrobat Reader) is a report entitled “Gallery of Water-related Pseudoscience,” which lists a great many of these scams together with brief remarks giving the salient claims.


EM (January 10, 2007, 11:32:55 AM):
...they always say "clinically tested" but we never see the results of said tests. Few people remember from their own school days that being tested does not equal to passing the test ;)
Mefiante (January 10, 2007, 13:00:46 PM):
...they always say "clinically tested" but we never see the results of said tests. Few people remember from their own school days that being tested does not equal to passing the test ;)
Indeed. But it is worth keeping in mind that "clinically tested" is a very different beast to "clinically proven." The latter is a positive assertion of efficacy, while the former is, as you point out, neutral in that respect. Exploiting the public's generally poor understanding of the meaning of, and distinctions among, such terms is yet more of the subterfuge employed by marketing types to increase the attractiveness of a product. However, sometimes even "clinically proven" can end up the victim of severe assault and battery: an item of cosmetics was recently advertised with a prominent proclamation that it was clinically proven, and this caption was footnoted in tiny, low contrast typeface, "11 women, self-assessment."

EM (January 11, 2007, 09:00:24 AM):
Marketers marketing.
kennyg (February 09, 2007, 19:00:51 PM):
The same phenomenon is happening a lot with patent drugs these days. New drugs are brought to the market that have little or no benefit over older drugs apart from the fact that they are new, and hence protected by patent for a number of years.

There are numerous cases, documented in the medical journals, where clinical trials have been anything but truthful with their findings. In literally hundreds of trials, the results have been manipulated to favour the new drug where the raw data does not support such findings. Outright fraud is not uncommon.

One of the interesting practices is to purge the control (placebo) group of all individuals who do not fit the intended profile. This is a total violation of the principles of a placebo controlled double-blind protocol.

The result is that drugs get approved and put on the market that are not significantly more effective than older drugs, or do not have significantly less side-effects than the older drugs. They are, however significantly more expensive than the older drugs that have generics in the market.

One example of this is the class of drugs known as COX-2 inhibitors. They are used for pain relief for people with inflammation diseases like arthritis. The claim was that COX-2 inhibitors cause significantly less gastric distress than older drugs like ibuprofen. Not only has that claim proven to be false, the clinical trials have been re-examined and proof of malfesance has been uncovered. What's worse is that COX-2 inhibitors have a side effect in that they can cause heart attacks. Vioxx was the first of the COX-2 inhibitors to be withdrawn from the market, but not before it killed an estimated 55000 people in the USA.

What then makes this saga boggle the mind is that an FDA panel then voted to reapprove Vioxx and keep Bextra in the market. Of the panel of 32 experts, 10 of them had financial ties with the manufacturers. Had those 10 experts not voted, the panel would have voted 12 to 8 to withdraw Bextra from the market and 14 to 8 to keep Vioxx off the market.

While the "special" water might not do anything to you but deplete your wallet, at least water isn't toxic in normal quantities.


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