“Red Defense” Supplements & Quack Biology

We’ve all heard about the research suggesting that a daily glass of red wine is good for your health. By why wait a lifetime of steady moderation? “Red defense,” a product I recently heard shilled on the radio, claims to put vino to shame, containing per pill as much of the “good stuff” as 34 glasses of red wine. Indeed, various things with the “Red” tag seem to be part of a sort of a mini-supplement fad these days: another example is Superior Red. You gotta love the list of ingredients on this thing: it starts out with amounts of the usual nutritional components like fiber, protein, & sugar but then goes on say that it contains 150mg of… Watermelon? 100mg of… Blood Oranges? Aren’t fruits themselves made of sugar, fiber, and protein anymore?

In any case, Red Defense is marketed on the idea that if mainstream science suspects that something is good for you, then it makes sense to immediately start imbibing loads of it, proper dosing be damned. Superior Red seems marketed on the idea that lots of really really tiny amounts of lots of different fruits is better than just eating one piece of actual fruit. Both ideas seem profoundly ignorant of human biology: they take decent but preliminary nutrition science about things like flavonoids, resveratrol and anti-oxidants in general and spin them into modern snake-oil hokum. And as we all know, bad ideas deserve beatdowns.

More of a Good Thing?

Most of the marketing oomph from this particular “Red” fad comes from the so-called “French paradox”: the fact that in many parts of France, heart disease is substantially lower compared to the rest of the world despite the prevalence of relatively fatty diets. Of course, the real cause of the paradox is disputed, and there are many factors based on the particular sorts of fatty diets eaten, the climate, and so on that probably play a role. None of these things, however, are easily distilled down into a pill form.

Instead, red wine, which is consumed liberally in the region, has traditionally been hyped as the culprit. And while moderate red wine consumption does seem to have some health benefits, a lot of scientists are also beginning to suspect that it has more to do with the actual alcohol itself than anything else. But, yet again, I don’t think an “alcohol supplement” would be very marketable in the chaste world of naturopathy.

So instead, many folks have been searching what other magical natural ingredients red wine might contain that can be sold for boku moola. On this score, preliminary research focus has centered on anti-oxidants like flavonoids and resveratrol (Red Defense is pushing resveratrol in particular).

The problem with all of this comes from taking some preliminary scientific evidence and trying to translate it directly into a treatment; entirely neglecting the fact that science is likely to change, could be entirely wrong, or that developing effective treatment protocols is often just as, if not more, difficult as discovering the original healthy effect in the first place. It’s as if someone went and manufactured an entire line of cars designed to run on the principle of cold fusion the very day after its discovery was announced… without even waiting to see if the cold fusion claims actually panned out or not (they didn’t).

In the case of Red Defense, the buzzword du jour is “resveratrol,” a sort of plant antibiotic. At least in the case of yeast, flies, and mice, resveratrol appears to significantly increase lifespans. It’s also found in the skin of grapes, and hence in red wine. You probably already saw where this was leading: the French paradox has been cracked! Start chugging the stuff!

Not so fast: while resveratrol supplements may yet turn out out to be worthwhile in their own right, they also just as easily might not, and the research in humans still only in Phase 1 trials. The fact that it increases the lifespan of mice is far less impressive in light of the fact that damn near anything seems to increase the lifespan of mice (which, like all the other animals that saw benefit, is very very short to begin with): the number of times such things have then failed to show any such effect in humans is simply legendary.  Many nutritionists have expressed skepticism that oral supplement-grade resveratrol even makes it into the blood stream in sufficient quantities to have its claimed effects in the first place.  Finally, the compound oxidizes extremely quickly (meaning most of it may end up being destroyed in the production process long before it even gets into your mouth) unless all sorts of special laboratory-grade precautions are taken (and how sure are you that the supplement makers actually followed these extremely expensive procedures?).

And, perhaps most importantly of all, the supposed role of resveratrol in the French Paradox is deeply suspect in any case: it just isn’t present in red wine in sufficient concentrations to credibly be the culprit, given how much of the stuff is required to produce supermice. Finally, most resveratrol supplements are not made from “red” grapes in any case, but instead from dirt-cheap Japanese knotweed, a fact which is hidden by the use of its species name, “Fallopia japonica,” on the labels.

In short, even if resveratrol someday proves beneficial in humans, the whole “Red Wine” marketing gimmick is an exercise in crummy, misleading science: rushing ahead of the research to try and make a quick buck off of French Paradox hype.

Dosi-Don’t

But there’s even an more perplexing degree of ignorance on display here: the implied ideas that either the dose of some supposedly beneficial chemical ingredient just doesn’t matter, or that more of a good thing is always better. Not long ago, I complained that even if people don’t remember much from high-school chemistry, they should at least recall the basic idea that the particular structure and bonding properties of elements and molecules are what determine their properties: it’s not as simple as “ionized chlorine is deadly dangerous, therefore anything that contains chlorine is evil.”

The same sort of thing applies here. I don’t expect most people to remember how to diagram a Krebs Cycle, but the idea that the body reacts to different levels of chemicals and nutrients in all sorts of complex and often counter-intuitive ways should be a pretty basic take-away point. In biology, there is always too much or too little: you can die from dehydration, but you can also die from drinking too much water.

When real doctors make dosage mistakes it can harm or even kill their patients. That’s because they are using real medicines with actual effects on complex human biology. If these effects aren’t correctly tailored or moderated to the particular body its needs, they can cause serious harm. When quacks with miracle pills try to sell you their wares, the fact that they don’t ever seem to care about dosage should always be a big red flag, strongly suggesting that their medications don’t do much of anything, good or bad (and hence pose little danger of lawsuits).

The case of flavonoids, it turns out, is a pretty good example of why the “more is always better” school of thinking makes no sense when glibly applied to every case. Flavonoids (like procyanidin) are yet another suspected culprit for the French Paradox and probably a more reasonable one, with far stronger evidence of health benefits in humans.

So, if they’re good for you, you should drop a pretty penny on buying super-concentrated supplements, instead of just drinking those paltry amounts of wine or green tea, right? Well… no. Because, again, biology is more complicated than that. The story seems to go like this: not only are flavonoids by and large not even absorbed into your system, but the body actively tries to get rid of them as quickly as possible, treating them as foreign substances. It turns out that the potentially beneficial anti-oxidant factors are actually released by the body itself as a by-product of an almost allergic reaction to flavanoids. The punchline here is that initiating this reaction doesn’t really seem to depend on the amount taken past a certain threshold: taking massive doses of flavanoids isn’t actually going to accomplish anything that the small amount in wine couldn’t spark off just as well. A nice juicy orange, or a soothing cup of green tea may not seem as kickass as a big bottle of FLAVONOID MEGADOSE EXTREME, but the science suggests it would probably work just as well.

Of course, a little thing like science isn’t likely to stop a monstrous marketing machine…

Tiny Amounts of Nothing Much at All?

… And so this is where “Superior Red” makes its pitch: dehydrating a cornucopia of different fruits into a special red powder that’s supposed to “support your body’s antioxidant defense system.”

Myself, I can’t quite see why this is all worth the effort. My body’s anti-oxidant defense system hasn’t made any special procurement requests lately, and if it did, I’d probably just have an apple and be done with it. Even if any given ingredient in this particular concoction really does have specific special health benefits, you’re only eating around 100mg of it. Compared to the amount of nutrients you’d get from eating a whole fresh fruit, this is an astonishingly minuscule amount. I know I just got through arguing that more isn’t always better, but “next to nothing” isn’t necessarily always useful either. It all depends on the particulars of dietary biology… a specific empirical rationale which these sorts of “kitchen sink” supplements never seem to bother providing.

Instead, as with most suppli-speak, it’s implied here that a special mix of fruit bits (the “proprietary” ORAC blend) is more “balanced” than, well, just eating fruit as part of a balanced diet. Exactly what is being “balanced,” and against what, is never explained. Also unexplained is why the same extremely precise mix of extremely tiny amounts of fruit dust would be optimal for all people regardless of the rest of their diet. What difference is an additional 150 milligrams of “watermelon” going to make if I’ve already just eaten a couple cups of watermelon balls, weighing in at around at half a million milligrams?

And are the anti-oxidants found in blood oranges in any way chemically different from those in, say, regular (but less flashy sounding) oranges? If so, is there some theory that suggests that having a wide diversity of different sorts of anti-oxidants from different fruits is itself good? Why? Or if some of the nutrients in some fruits are better than others, why not just eat those in significant quantities, rather than insignificant amounts of everything under the sun?

If there’s any rhyme or reason to this teeny-tiny smorgasboard, or any value to taking instead of just eating more fruit in general, I’m not seeing it.

Maybe I’m not meant to. Maybe I’m just supposed to close my eyes, think Red, chug it down, and pretend I’m in France.

C’est la Vie.

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17 Responses to “Red Defense” Supplements & Quack Biology

  1. Xixen says:

    Bravo! Fruit and wine taste so much better besides.

  2. Norma says:

    So, are you saying Red Defense is good or bad or your health?

  3. Bad says:

    I’m saying that there’s no good reason to think it’s good for your health. For all I or anyone knows, the stuff is just some knotweed juice that’s been dyed red, or even nothing much at all (supplements like this are not regulated for either accurate, tested health claims or often even truth in advertising). There’s no solid evidence demonstrating its efficacy, and thus nothing that justifies purchasing and consuming any.

  4. Jim says:

    They are claiming to provide 100% of the daily allottment of fruits, vegetables, and fibor in this one glass. Are you saying there is no merit to that? Making the statement that it’s “some knotweed juice that’s been died red” is a serious accusation. Do you have any data to back this up? What are your qualifications to be rating this product?

  5. Bad says:

    They are claiming to provide 100% of the daily allottment of fruits, vegetables, and fibor in this one glass. Are you saying there is no merit to that?

    To eating fruits and vegetables? No. But I believe V8 makes the same claim, and far more cheaply. Eating your daily amount of fruits and vegetables is not exactly a big deal, and frankly, it’s probably better to actually do it and get the roughage instead of trying to cram it all into “one glass” anyway.

    The woo comes not from the idea that fruits and vegetables are healthy, but rather the claim to have a magically balanced perfect formula of every fruit and vegetable they think sounds cool.

    Making the statement that it’s “some knotweed juice that’s been died red” is a serious accusation. Do you have any data to back this up?

    Sure: look on the bottles of many of these products: they list knotweed, often as the primary ingredient. Simple as that. Knotweed and hellebore were, in fact, the things in which resveratrol was discovered in first. This is not to say that these are bad sources of the stuff. But the hype is all built around the “red wine” branding and what that’s meant to conjure up in people’s minds. The fact that the product may have nothing to do with red wine grapes or even have anything to do with the French Paradox is pretty important information though, no? The supplement industry makes its living off jumping from one tenuous bit of nutritional hype to another, never really waiting to look seriously at the science. This is just an example of how that plays out in practice.

    What are your qualifications to be rating this product?

    The ability to read more than marketing hype and to do some actual research into the science behind its claims. You’ll note that I mostly raise skeptical questions based on evidence, not claim any special expertise or authority (doing so when I write under a pseudonym would just be silly: I could say that I’m a doctor or a chemist or anything else, but I can’t prove it unless I just write under my own name, so there’s no point in making such claims).

    Thus, if you doubt what I say, you are welcome to supply counterargument or, better yet, some actual evidence that these supplements really do anything special. So far, the research does not look particularly promising.

    As I noted, resveratrol likely does have some good nutritional effects as a compound, but whether supplements like “Red Defense” actually help deliver them to the body in a usable form is highly suspect, for some of the reasons I note (plus the general problem in the largely unregulated supplement industry: whether they even put in the bottle what they claim on the label). Even in ideal conditions, the size and nature of these potential effects is really quite unknown at this point, especially when compared to other interventions.

    Likewise, magical concoctions of teensy amounts of lots of different fruits and vegetables has very little science behind it. The claims made for such products need to be demonstrated in the first place before anyone would have to provide evidence against them. I’ve raised several pragmatic reasons why these claims are almost certainly just marketing hype, as they have questionable scientific plausibility but a lot of the usual jargon.

  6. Rob Martin says:

    Are you not aware of the work of Dr. David Sinclair and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School and at MIT? Their breakthroughs have been reported on the front page of the New York Times and numerous scientific journals. The levels of resveratrol they recommend are many times higher than the levels found in red wine.

  7. Bad says:

    Yes, I am aware of them. None of them at this point support the idea that random supplementation is an effective way to get the affects they talk about, or even that there is conclusive evidence of such effects in human beings. Extending the life of a mouse, which naturally has a very short lifespan to being with is a very different proposition than doing the same in human beings, where other affects may play far greater rolls, swamping out whatever it might do in humans. No one knows at this point. Sinclair is obviously very excited about his research, but he’s yet to really establish what he would need to, and he has a huge financial interest in its success at this point, having founded a company to develop products around the hype.

    And as I noted, given that resveratrol is relatively difficult to formulate into a pill that won’t break down before it gets to people, I’m skeptical that many of the companies currently shilling it as a supplement are likely to put in the extra effort: they aren’t really regulated as to whether they really bother. There are no real guarantees or quality controls. This is something that, in fact, Sinclair himself has noted many times about products hes found on the market that trade off of the resveratrol hype.

  8. resv says:

    Really enjoyed the site :)

  9. Elina Maslonka says:

    I used to have mice – my blog tells you how to get rid of mice, stop by and check it out.

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  16. Angel Garcia says:

    I have the pill in my hand but after reading the article from the gentlemen I think make sence I’m not going to drinked because no make no sence if I eat fruit and vegatables is more fresh and better to my health because I watching what I’m eating .sorry no pill fo me thank you ,for the person whith the knowledge .angel Garcia

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