Detoxing – or flushing out your wallet?

By Wendy Knowler January 05 2009

We are gratefull to the author, Wendy Knowler, and Independent Newspapers, for permission to reprint this article here.

'Do you look tired, old and fat?" Well, yes, since you ask. It's early January, and I have to admit I've looked and felt better. And when I opened my TV listings magazine in search of small screen solace, I was confronted by your full-page advert for detox foot pads. That tired, old and fat line really got my attention, thanks to the thick red circle around each of these depressing words. "Just imagine all those toxins, like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and pollution, inside your body!" the advert reads.

Apparently all I have to do is stick a pad to my feet when I go to bed, and when I wake up it will be black, and that's how I'll know that I've purged those baddies through the soles of my feet. Brilliant – all while I'm fast asleep.

The advert doesn't say that sticking a pad to my feet for a few nights will also make me lose weight, but the photo of the skinny woman holding a tape measure around her waist tells me that this is exactly what I can expect. And for R200 I get 20 pads – just R10 a night for a whole new, cleansed, skinny me! What a bargain.

On the other hand, I could save myself R200, and for free – well, almost for free – I could do some research on the computer. And that's when I'll discover that the little pads aren't quite what they're cracked up to be. For starters, ABC TV's renowned 20-20 investigative programme called for volunteers to try out two types of detox pads. In a show broadcast in April, it reported that dropping distilled water on the pads produced the same dark colour.

Laboratory analysis of the pads used by eight volunteers showed no significant evidence of heavy metals or commonly used solvents. Globally, the detox industry is worth billions. All year round, but especially in January, we're bombarded with adverts for pills and patches promising to magically undo all the bad we do to our bodies.

And magazines are full of detox stories, too. In January 2006, Sense About Science, a UK charity committed to promoting better understanding about modern science, strongly urged consumers to drop detox remedies. Just drink tap water and get an early night – without expensive pads attached to your feet – the scientists said. "Our bodies have their own 'detox' mechanisms," Sense About Science said in a report. "The gut prevents bacteria and many toxins from entering the body. When harmful chemicals do enter the body, the liver acts as an extraordinary chemical factory, usually combining them with its own chemicals to make a water-soluble compound that can be excreted by the kidneys. "The body thus detoxifies itself. The body is rehydrated with ordinary tap water. It is refreshed with a good night's sleep."

This process doesn't happen more effectively "as a result of taking 'detox' tablets, wearing 'detox' socks, having a 'detox' body wrap, eating nettle root extract, drinking herbal infusions or 'oxygenated' water, following a special 'detox' diet, or using any of the other products and rituals that are promoted", the report concluded. "They waste money and sow confusion about how our bodies, nutrition and chemistry actually work."

Even if you drink an almost lethal dose of alcohol, said Sir Colin Berry, professor emeritus of pathology at the University of London's Queen Mary College – hastening to add that he doesn't recommend this – "your liver will clear it in 36 hours without any assistance from detox tablets".

Berry added: "The only thing you can do to help your liver after a period of indulgence is to stop drinking alcohol and drink water to rehydrate." And the stuff which comes out of your tap will do just fine. "Ordinary tap water is as good as it gets," said UK water and waste water chemical scientist Kevin Prior. "Much is made of the benefits of natural water, but all water needs to be processed so that we can drink it. There is also no convincing evidence of any beneficial effects from consuming low or high mineral content bottled waters."

The bottled water industry is dealing with growing consumer awareness that routinely drinking bottled water is not only a colossal waste of money, but environmentally unfriendly as well, given all those millions of plastic bottles. Last month the SA National Bottled Water Association (Sanbwa) addressed both concerns in a media release entitled "How different would your life be without bottled water?"

It stated: "Yes, you want to buy ethically produced groceries that don't add to landfill problems and that do help to protect and conserve the environment. So, should or shouldn't you be buying bottled water?

"Wouldn't it be simpler and cheaper just to drink tap water – especially in a country like ours where municipal water is, in 99% of cases, clean, safe and pleasant tasting? "Simpler, yes. After all, it doesn't take much effort to open a tap.

Cheaper, yes. Because of the sheer volume of municipal water delivered to and used in buildings, 250ml of tap water usually does cost quite a lot less than bottled water." Quite a lot less being quite a massive understatement.

And then came the buts. Tap water doesn't give us convenience "on the road" or a choice of tastes. True, you can put tap water in a bottle and carry it with you. But keeping a store of freshly washed, dried, lid-on plastic bottles calls for a level of domestic organisation for which most of us don't have the focus or the interest.

And it doesn't help with the landfill issue because accumulating and re-using plastic bottles requires you to buy them in the first place. The answer is to recycle, Sanbwa says. PET, the oil-based material from which most beverage bottles are made, is 100% recyclable, and currently about a quarter of PET in South Africa is being recycled. In other words, three-quarters of them end up clogging landfills.

But, says Sanbwa, "you can take comfort from the fact that while some 2-billion PET bottles are produced in South Africa every year, they have only seven percent of the mass of glass bottles. So they save on the fuel needed to transport them to retailers as well as reducing emissions from the transport vehicles". The release ended by reminding consumers that the cost of bottled water, and all those recyclable plastic bottles, was offset by the joy of the taste.

"No, your life wouldn't be a disaster without it. But there'd be less freedom in it." And that, dear readers, is one of the best examples of spin I've ever read.

This article was originally published on page 7 of  The Star on January 05, 2009

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