Snake-oil salesmen and elixir hawkers are hardly a thing of the past, if the barrage of advertising and articles about AMAZING new products is to be believed. But wait, there's more! We scoured every source imaginable -- medical studies, debunking authorities, Brookstone catalogs -- to make our best guesstimate as to whether claims about these products are closer to gospel truth or to utter poppycock.
This product is pitched relentlessly in a 10-second TV ad (www.startribune.com/a3895) showing a model rubbing a Chapstick-like device on her forehead with the repetitious voice-over: "HeadOn! Apply directly to the forehead!" It's back in the news after a user sued its maker, Miralus Healthcare.
Claim: The clear implication is that HeadOn relieves headaches. Miralus has called it a "homeopathic remedy" that works through the nerves.
Evidence: Famous debunker James Randi pointed out that HeadOn is mostly wax, with the minuscule concentration of its two active ingredients being 1:1 trillion and 1:1 million. The director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago told the Washington Post that it's a placebo. The Better Business Bureau warned Miralus not to make headache-relief claims in ads.
Who needs steam? These trendy saunas use infrared radiant energy to coax the sweat out of users' pores without heating their surroundings. The saunas reportedly have become a fashionable addition to many celebrities' homes.
Claim: Using deep-penetrating heat, infrared saunas stimulate the body's tissues, increase circulation and sweat out harmful toxins.
Evidence: The effectiveness of infrared saunas appears to come down to a continuing debate between alternative medicine and mainstream health providers over whether the body actually requires "detoxification." But all agree that sweating is good for you.
Verdict: True-y!Personal hyperbaric chamber
Step inside these single-person therapeutic chambers to get a prolonged dose of oxygen at high-atmosphere pressure. Starting price? About $10,000. Dallas Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens has one in his home.
Claim: Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) increases the oxygen supply in the blood and body tissues to treat all kinds of health woes, from non-healing wounds to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Evidence: Although there is some debate over the effectiveness of HBOT, Medicare and other health insurers cover it as a treatment for certain health conditions. Owens has recovered from serious injuries faster than expected to play in big games, such as a recent playoff matchup and the Super Bowl.
Ancient Chinese secret: It's like a Bioré strip, but for your feet. Apply a "detox patch" to the bottom of each foot at night and then remove it in the morning. One online retailer sells a box of 20 patches for about $40.
Claim: An herbal tree extract in the patches draws toxins out through your soles while you sleep. The used patches will have a dark residue initially. With repeated use, they will become lighter and your health will get better.
Evidence: Seriously? They're fairly new, so no formal studies have been done. Still, we called around to Twin Cities doctors, including those in alternative medicine, to see what they thought, but none would comment. All-righty then.
A small perennial shrub in the chrysanthemum family, stevia rebaudiana is used to make an all-natural sweetener with no calories and virtually no carbs. It's available as a dietary supplement in health-food stores and a new soft drink called Zevia (not sold here yet), but the FDA continues to ban it as a food additive. Coca-Cola and locally based food giant Cargill are collaborating to introduce stevia-based rebiana into food and beverages.
Claim: Stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar but does not cause a spike in blood sugar and is beneficial for those with diabetes, hypoglycemia, obesity and high blood pressure.
Evidence: In tests and during decades of use in Latin America (the plant is a native of Paraguay) and Asia, no ill effects have been found.
A breath of uber-fresh air. There's an oxygen bar at the Mall of America, and Oxygen-Plus canisters are available at more than a dozen Twin Cities locations, from Spalon Montage to Bobby & Steve's Auto World.
Claim: The merits are mostly implied: It keeps us alive, so the more the merrier, right? Interestingly, oxygen-bar proprietors rarely make medical claims for their product. At the Minneapolis salon Studio 411, which sells a lot of Oxygen-Plus canisters, stylist Jeffrey Caron, said they appeal to runners, skiers at high altitudes and people who fly a lot.
Evidence: A Vanderbilt University study found that "free radicals," highly reactive molecules derived from oxygen, can cause respiratory damage. "We're starting to think that oxygen is not as benign as many believe it is," said Dr. L. Jackson Roberts, a professor of pharmacology and medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. No wonder most products come with warnings against too much intake. And you have to wonder about this mother of all caveats, at the Oxygen-Plus website: "Persons with any type of health or medical condition should consult their physician prior to use of O+ products."
Japanese for "deliciousness," but a better translation would be "savory." Dr. David Kasabian recently described umami on "The Today Show" as "the taste of protein that's broken down into amino acids" (think mushrooms, soy sauce, tomatoes and anchovies).
Claim: It's a matter of taste -- specifically the "fifth taste," joining sweet, sour, salty and bitter, which most Americans have been taught are the only four basic flavors that our palates can discern.
Evidence: Umami actually was "discovered" more than 100 years ago by a Japanese scientist, who subsequently invented MSG (monosodium glutamate) to ratchet up the savory aspect of dishes. Although there are conflicting takes on the healthfulness of MSG, no one these days is disputing that umami is the fifth taste. A recent Wall Street Journal article nominated as the archetypal umami dish a "Caesar salad, redolent of Parmesan cheese, minced anchovies and Worcestershire sauce."
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542 Bill Ward • 612-673-7643