Misleading Ads in Scientific American

I’m frequently asked, “Is what that ad says really true?” Three recent inquiries have been about products advertised in Scientific American. An ad may acquire a certain cachet by appearing in a prestigious science magazine, but that doesn’t mean much. Scientific American’s editorial standards apparently don’t extend to its advertising department. I remain skeptical about the claims for all three of these: Juvenon, the StressEraser, and the ROM exercise machine. I discussed the ROM machine last week.


This product is advertised as “The Supplement That Can Slow Down the Clock on Aging Cells.” Andrew Weil also sells this on his website. It supposedly helps keep your mitochondria from decaying, promotes brain cell function, sustains energy levels, and is a powerful antioxidant.

The first time I noticed an ad for Juvenon in Scientific American I wrote the following letter to the editor:

I was delighted to read in Michael Shermer’s column that acupuncture was “full of holes.” Then I turned back the page and found an ad for Juvenon on the reverse. This is tantamount to finding an ad for the (creationist) Discovery Institute on the back of a page about evolution.

My only consolation is that most readers of Scientific American are observant enough to read the words at the bottom of the ad: “The product featured is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” I hope they are also astute enough to realize that the words “pre-clinical studies on aging” do not constitute a basis for human treatment. Juvenon’s claims (“sustains energy level, promotes brain cell function”) are based on in vitro studies and animal studies in aged rats.

Much of alternative medicine follows this recipe: take a lab study, hypothesize a human application, and sell something. As Michael Shermer so aptly puts it, “science is the only tool that can tell us whether they really work or not.”

They didn’t publish my letter.

In October 2007, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database commented on Juvenon in its newsletter.

[Juvenon] is now being promoted for healthy aging, improving brain cell function, sustaining energy levels, and preventing cellular aging. Its main ingredients include alpha-lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine. These ingredients have antioxidant effects, are involved with energy production in cells, and might have a role in improving cognitive function in older people and patients with dementia. The next step will be to see if science can prove positive outcomes for the aging process, energy, or overall health.

Yes, the next step is to find out if it works. The next step is not to start recommending everybody take the stuff.

In the pharmaceutical industry, out of 5000 initially promising drugs, only 5 make it to human testing, and only one of those makes it to the market. What are the odds that this particular “preclinically” promising remedy could pass that kind of testing? Presumably 1 in 5000. But Juvenon is not likely to be subjected to that kind of testing, since it is marketed as a diet supplement rather than as a drug. Under FDA rules, the manufacturer cannot claim it is intended to treat any disease; only vague “supports health” claims are allowed. They can’t come right out and say it will make you live longer, although they try very hard to imply it. They can’t even show that it makes rats live longer, and the company’s own scientific advisor admitted to me that the only human evidence they have to support their claims so far is anecdotal.

StressEraser: “Effects of Stress Reversed”

The StressEraser is a small handheld device that monitors your pulse and guides you in slow breathing exercises to produce relaxation. If you use it for 15 minutes at bedtime, they claim that your system will continue to reverse the effects of stress while you sleep. You will “feel good again” – guaranteed!

As far as I can see, this mini-biofeedback machine is nothing more than a $300 “crutch” to facilitate slow breathing exercises. They claim it reverses “ergotropic tuning.” That sounds impressive, but I think it’s just a way of saying that stress tends to heighten the body’s responses to stress. Relaxing is good. I don’t doubt that this cute little gadget can help people relax while they’re using it. It remains to be seen whether it has any significant long-term effects on response to stress or on the diseases caused by stress.

There’s a similar device called the Resperate that has been approved for treatment of hypertension and has been shown in small, short-term studies to cause a small drop in blood pressure. If it can be confirmed that breathing exercises do some good, the next question is whether they do any more good than other relaxation techniques.

Shame on Scientific American

I’ve written to a number of newspapers and magazines protesting about ads that I thought made false or misleading claims for health products. They never print letters to the editor about their advertisers and they never answer my letters to the advertising department. I’ve even written directly to the publishers to no avail. It seems the journalistic standards of the newspaper or magazine are entirely disconnected from the need to make money from advertisers.

A couple of years ago I had a long exchange with my local newspaper about a bogus weight loss product – one of those “eat all you want and still lose weight” scams. I showed them that the claims were false. I showed them that the FTC had asked for the cooperation of the media in eliminating these ads, because there were too many of them for the FTC to keep up with. An FTC official had even published a list of specific things the media should look for, and this product fit the bill; I not only told them what was on the list but I gave them the link to that list. I got excuses like “We don’t decide what ads to run, they come to us from our parent company.” They refused to take any responsibility to screen ads as the FTC had asked.

I pointed out that I had now informed them of the FTC guidelines and the bogus nature of this product, and could document that they were aware of these facts. I told them if a reader believed their ads, was harmed, and sued, he could name the newspaper in the lawsuit and the newspaper would be liable for having knowingly printed false and misleading information. They didn’t care. They continued to run the ads. They’re still running similar ads for the same company, although the product names have changed.

I don’t expect much of newspapers, but it seems to me that a magazine devoted to science should have some standards, especially a prestigious publication like Scientific American. It’s unfortunate, because when an ad appears in a scientific magazine, the average reader is likely to think the product is scientifically valid and has been approved by the magazine. They can brag, “As advertised in Scientific American” and consumers will be impressed.

I wonder if Scientific American would run an ad for Sylvia Browne’s psychic services or an ad for a perpetual motion machine. Would they run an ad saying, “We will rid your home of ghosts”? I don’t remember seeing anything like that in their pages. Is there a double standard at work here? Shouldn’t they be even more vigilant about products that impact patients’ health than they are about products that only impact their wallets? Lots of publications reject cigarette ads.

If some trusting soul buys an ROM 4 minute exercise machine, believes the hype, follows the instructions, and has a heart attack from overexertion or blows out the ligaments in his knee, whoever published the ad should share in the blame. Sure, caveat emptor, but how about responsible journalism giving the emptor a little help? Is that too much to ask?

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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