Swisse claims are full of holes

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A while back, having satisfied myself that popping vitamin pills and other supplements is mostly a waste of time unless medically indicated, I decided to look into the claims of Swisse, a company which advertises that stuff very heavily here. They use high profile sports people and other luminaries to sell their touchy-feely, aint-life-grand-when-you-feel-great message.

It seems that now the Therapeutic Goods Administration (on whom I have heaped so much scorn) have taken an interest, and ordered Swisse to pull advertising for 11 of their products. It also seems that the TGA has grown a pair, and as result my estimation of them has also grown. High five, TGA.

Apart from the usual multi-vitamin stuff, roundly taken to task in Ben Goldacre’s writings, Swisse push wild krill oil, liver detox, glucosamine, coenzymes, chlorophyll etc etc – you get the idea. Think of a supplement and they sell it. While some have reasonable evidence of efficacy for some conditions (for example, krill oil in easing PMS symptoms), others are questionable – for example, see my article on glucosamine.

So last year, I decided to check on the multi-vitamin claims, which also happen to be the hardest to pin down. You know, like those nebulous symptoms like ‘rundown’ and ‘listless’ – which it turns out respond remarkably well to the placebo effect. I resisted the urge to write to Ricky Ponting, and instead wrote to Swisse themselves. Their response was as follows:

We refer to the above and thank you for your enquiry. Swisse Vitamins have conducted two clinical double blind trials by independent research teams to date.  These results can be found on the following link:  http://www.swisse.com.au/?deeplink=/RESEARCH/Swisse_Ultivite_Clinical_Trials/#/RESEARCH/Swisse_Ultivite_Clinical_Trials/ .

At this stage we are conducting new clinical trials on both the Swisse Men’s and Women’s Ultivites Formula 1 in men and women aged 25-45.

In the initial clinical trials such great results became apparent to the researchers at Swinburn University that they wanted to do more in depth studies on the health benefits of the Swisse Men’s and Women’s Formula 1, especially in younger age groups.  Some of the areas that will be looked at are stress, mood and cognitive function.

Furthermore Swisse Vitamins also have ongoing clinical trials, again conducted by independent researchers. 

Once the results have been collated we will be making them readily available to be peer reviewed and will give our consumers detailed information via our website. If you have any further enquires, please do not hesitate to contact the Swisse team.

What makes Swisse products so different? It’s all about the Swisse team’s 4P’s approach to life – where People, Principles and Passion must come before profits. As you may know, the Swisse formulae are based on over 25 years of research and backed by clinical studies, scientific validation or other evidence based on traditional use. Swisse contains effective, clinical potencies and incorporates the highest-grade natural source, standardised extracts and water-soluble nutrients whenever available.  Surveys show that when you compare and evaluate the ingredients, potency and research invested in Swisse with the pricing and benefits of other multivitamin brands, the Swisse Ultivite should be priced over 5 times the current recommended retail price. The Swisse team always aim to provide consumers with world leading products, at the most competitive prices.

We’re also obsessed with quality assurance, to ensure that from soil to shelf every product we develop meets world class standards and delivers the benefits you desire for health and happiness. For example, every batch of Swisse Women’s and Men’s Ultivite must pass over 300 quality assurance and scientific tests before they are approved for sale, to ensure the product’s safety and efficacy. 

Swisse Ultivites have been independently tested for use by athletes because Swisse does not contain any prohibited substances. Swisse is one of the biggest investors in research and development, with independent clinical studies always being conducted at world leading universities including The University of Melbourne, Swinburne, Southern Cross and Queensland Universities and other medical establishments worldwide. It’s all about the Swisse team’s 4P’s commitment to putting People, Principles and Passion before profits and making more people healthier and happier.

CLED! (“Celebrate Life Every Day!” That’s the Swisse Team Spirit!)

Full marks to Swisse for actually responding, even though 2/3 of it was spin. And yes, they were able to point to a couple of clinical studies which had all the right words. If nothing else, they have a very effective and switched on marketing department. The little sign-off homily is indicative of their pitch – woo-hoo! it’s great to be alive. Oh, and by the way, their products are even ‘carbon balanced’, which they say means they have done a carbon audit, and will be reducing their emissions. They have all the feel-good stuff covered, right?

The two study outcomes presented on their website seemed persuasive enough, although I now know to take with a pinch of salt any study from the Southern Cross University department of Complementary Medicine, after this nonsense.

The above letter dates back to July 2011, and no further testing is indicated on their website, despite the promises in the email, and I’m betting there won’t be anytime soon.

And given the extensive range of products they sell, why only two studies? Surely they should have tested everything they sell?

Well no. This is just another variant of the effect I described way back, in which you do a little testing, just enough to indicate ‘promising’ effects, and then never quite get around to doing proper definitive studies. In this way, you can claim to have done randomised, placebo controlled, double blind testing, without actually lying.

Anyhow, it seems that based on some complaints, the TGA has ordered them to cease advertising certain products. In the most recent example, Swisse were called for contravention of section 42C of the Therapeutic Goods Act. To summarise the often obtuse language used in the complaints register, Swisse is allowed to advertise their products without prior permission if no specific therapeutic claims are made. However, if such claims are made, then permission must be sought (and presumably, evidence provided prior to permission being granted). This paragraph from the determination illustrates:

The Panel noted that the advertisement did not consist only of the limited information permitted by these exceptions. It included additional material such as the words “10 Fitness First Platinum 1-year gym memberships to be won”, and clearly legible therapeutic claims such as “liver detox”, “appetite suppressant”, “natural weight loss aid”, “helps support liver health”, “assists detoxification”, “digestion aid”, and “supports detox and digestion”. This additional material took the advertisement outside the scope of the exceptions outlined in section 42C of the Act and sections 3(3) and 6(2) of the Code.

In the case of its ‘Liquid Iron’ product, a complaint made in 2010 was also upheld. In the case, the complainant:

 … argued that the claims in the advertisement about constipation, bioavailability, and absorption were not supported by adequate evidence. The complainant alleged that the advertisement therefore breached sections 4(1)(b) and 4(2)(c) of the Code. The complainant also alleged that the advertisement breached section 4(2)(i) of the Code because of claims about safety and side effects.

Interestingly, when the complaint was put to Swisse, the TGA says:

The advertiser acknowledged that “there were several breaches of section 4(1)(b), 4(2)(c), and 4(2)(i)”, and stated that the website had been amended as a result of the complaint.

So instead of defending themselves, and providing the required evidence, they just amended the website. That tells you something.

The list goes on – I’ll let you read it for yourself if you’re interested.

However, the general point is that the Elmores and Swisses of this world just go on with their unethical behaviour, betting on the fact that they won’t be challenged by the average punter out there. And when they finally do get challenged, they just say ‘oops’, and go on making their millions by selling mostly worthless products.

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23 thoughts on “Swisse claims are full of holes

    Michael christopher said:
    April 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Dont be so paranoid. Be more concerned about what they put in your water, everybody drinks water but does everybody take swisse vitamins?….

      rationalbrain said:
      April 13, 2012 at 1:18 pm

      I know what’s in my water, and I thoroughly approve. Or are you not talking about fluoride? If perhaps you’re referring to those mind-altering drugs the secret world government is using to control us, then yes, I’m concerned.
      And I think ‘paranoid’ is a bit misguided. It’s simply a case of being aware that a. you’re pissing away most of the money you spend on their stuff, and b. they are telling lies when they claim to be fixing certain things, and have been caught out doing so.
      That’s not paranoia, just fact.

    Pam Miskin said:
    July 25, 2012 at 10:53 am

    After a PET scan showed multiple ordinary-nothing-to-worry-about cysts on my liver (as part of a work up to diagnose breast cancer bone mets) I decided to take Swisse Liver Detox tablets to help support my liver function. I don’t drink alcohol and have a good well balanced diet. The only reason I decided to try them was because an osteopath friend of mine suggested finding something with milk thistle in it – so stupid me I did! Within a fortnight of taking them my entire body is itching terribly (to the point that I am now cover in little sores) and when I had my blood test this week the oncologist phoned me to tell me my liver function was badly ABNORMAL when previously it had been perfectly normal!! Needless to say I stopped taking the tablets three days ago but I am still itching terribly. This is an allergy to the tablets and they have caused my poor liver to now not function properly! I have to have another blood test in a fortnight to reassess its function now! Not happy! There is nothing on the Swisse website for Liver Detox warning about this sort of reaction.

      rationalbrain said:
      July 25, 2012 at 11:15 am

      Sorry to hear about your misfortune Pam.
      It seems to me you have a valid claim against the vendors, and you should probably also contact the TGA with a complaint.
      This example tells us a lot about self-diagnosis, and also about the furry claims made by these people.
      They use these silly notions of ‘support’ and ‘detox’, because they don’t actually have to prove anything. Supporting something could just mean helping it work, so as long as you don’t make it worse, well, it’s supporting. Same with detox, and I’ve spoken about that before. This is the well-known ‘toxins gambit’. Scare people with the thought of toxins throughout your body and you can sell them anything. Again, don’t make the problem worse and you’ve gotten rid of the nasty toxins. It’s difficult to prove a negative – the absence of toxins and the continued good function of your liver, means that people will conclude the stuff is working.
      Unfortunately in your case it seems to have made things worse in a couple of different ways.
      Pam, would you be comfortable for me to quote you in a standalone post on this subject, to draw attention to the dangers? Unfortunately such stories can get buried in the comments section and not seen by as many people.
      rb.

    Pam Miskin said:
    August 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Yes that is fine to quote my story. My second blood test after stopping the Liver Detox tablets showed a marked improvement although it was still not back to the normal level is showed pre-self medicating!! Never again!!

      Sharyn said:
      October 15, 2012 at 6:00 pm

      So Pam – really answer to your issue was in your comment – its not actually the tablet you decided to take – it would appear you have an allergy to the table or an ingredient in it – my dad is allergic to honey and honey products and was taking a new brand of fish oil tablets and complaining of a itchy throat when he took them. It turns out one of the ingredients in the fish oil capsule was beeswax so it was stirring up his allergies. I dont think this is proof that there is a issue with the swiss tablets. I am still not sure why if your liver was functioning normally except for the cyst why you would even take a tablet for liver detox especially if you dont drink, as you were seeing a doctor at the time – why not ask if there was anything they could suggest. As for rationalbrain – thanks for the information but I dont think you have really proven much hear for me – this would be still at the end of the day be your opinion still.. hasnt really helped me in my search for information apart from you dont want to spend extra money for vitamins – thats fine and your decision to decide how much your health is worth to you. As for your comments on the company being a liar – I dont know if this is the case really – if the formula has not changed why would they do repeated test year on year? They have posted the initial findings if the formula changed since I would expect to see a update to the findings or new information. All in All I find youre blog on the company making its millions on worthless products unfounded and useless in my research on wether I will use this brand of vitamin.

        rationalbrain said:
        October 16, 2012 at 11:37 am

        Hi Sharyn
        I’m not seeking to prove a negative – i.e. that Swisse is a con, or that vitamins don’t help. What I’m asking people people like Swisse to is provide proof of the positive – they are the ones claiming all these health benefits, yet the evidence is poor or non-existent. That’s why the TGA called them out.
        Until they do that, then, yes, my opinion will be that they don’t do anything expect perhaps change the colour of your urine. (I’m excluding from this any medically prescribed vitamins for diagnosed deficiencies).
        As for your implication that I don’t care for my health, well that’s really a sly debating tactic, and unworthy of response.But I will respond anyway. If you put pills in your mouth without sufficient evidence that they do anything or are potentially harmful, and I don’t, which of us really cares less about their bodies?
        As I’ve said before, a company posting ‘initial findings’ on its website is worthless as evidence. People can write anything they like on their website, and countless scammers do. Unless you can find decent clinical trials by independent third parties, you are still without evidence.
        The bottom line is that these guys make ridiculously general claims – ‘well being’ – it can’t be measured. Yet they make millions/billions off selling stuff that’s said to improve it. So when you do your own research, don’t forget to ask them how they demonstrate that your well-being will be improved. You could also ask them who has replicated their trials and get copies of those papers.
        Another recommendation I’ll make for your research is to read something like “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre which I’ve reviewed on this site here. https://rationalbrain.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/book-review-bad-science-by-ben-goldacre/. He can tell you about the vitamin ‘industry’ far more authoritatively than I.

        I’ll happily publish any papers or other evidence that you find.
        I’m just betting however that you won’t be able to find any.
        Good luck.
        rb.

    Swisse vs. Reality « rationalbrain said:
    August 13, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    […] in July I had a crack at Swisse – one of the biggest marketers of questionable supplements and alternative therapies […]

    Sharyn said:
    October 17, 2012 at 12:34 am

    Re your statement “If you put pills in your mouth without sufficient evidence that they do anything or are potentially harmful, and I don’t, which of us really cares less about their bodies? ” looks like we both since I am researching this stuff to decide what to do. Really this statement is redundant.

      rationalbrain said:
      October 17, 2012 at 11:04 am

      I simply made this statement because you implied that I don’t buy vitamins because my health is not worth the cost. I just rejected this as nonsense.
      Yes, we’re both doing research, but my focus is on finding evidence for efficacy, not giving the vendors the benefit of the doubt as you seem to be doing. The simple truth is that taking the word of a vitamin vendor is a poor option if you care for your health; the rational thing to do is to seek independent evidence confirming their claims.
      Given that’s my position, I can’t really see how you can find my conclusions on Swisse ‘unfounded’. I’ll boil the logic down for you:
      1. Is there independent evidence of efficacy? NO.
      2. Do they make millions/billions selling their products? YES.
      3. Ergo, they make millions selling unproven/worthless products.

      Anyway, I do wish you luck in you search for the information. Please share it with us when you find it.
      rb.

    Brissy said:
    April 18, 2013 at 3:07 am

    Lol. Good one Rb.

    Moi said:
    August 26, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    I like your article. Especially ‘quackery’. Great word, and random. I love random humour. Anyhow, I started taking Swisse women’s ultivite a few months ago and at the start I felt a bit of a general ‘lift’. I don’t anymore, but I suppose that’s my body getting used to it. It won’t make me an olympian, but I think it does assist in its way – with a healthy diet, exercise and all the other caveats added on. Cheers.

    Leslie said:
    February 28, 2014 at 11:52 am

    I really enjoyed your post! I’m not half as knowledgeable as you, so can’t offer much of a comment but it was a very interesting read, thank you.

      Vivienne said:
      May 12, 2014 at 2:18 pm

      I am responding to Pam’s comments re Swisse Liver Detox tablets and as I started to have problems I thought that I would look up the question of “problems related to taking the product. I started to take them only because I was told my liver was a little high (yes I do have a beer or two, but nothing extreme) and decided to try these over advertised Liver Detox Tablets. I could not believe that Pam’s had exactly the same experience that I had! At first nothing altered, but within a few days started to notice that I was scratching the top of my leg and there were was a red rash and that I was itchy in other areas as well. As this had only started to happen since I started to take these, I thought that I would go off them and see what happened. The rashes are starting to reduce and the itchiness is not worrying me anymore, so I will never be taking these again. I, unlike Pam, are about to have a blood test in about 3 weeks, and I was hoping by taking these that it would improve my liver level – I hope I don’t find things are worse, as my drinking is so infrequent and therefore if the levels have risen I will know why and will be telling the Doctor what I did! I have always been wary of these products and the only supplement I have ever taken are fish oil/krill oil tablets of any brand that was on special with no effect really on the osteo arthritis, but they don’t cause any ill effect either. I think that I will even stop these eventually as they seem to be a huge money making lot of rubbish, also my brother met many years ago a guy who worked for one of these companies and told him they were a “load of bullshit” but a great money spinner and not to waste his money. Hope things are okay with you now Pam, but like me you were only trying to help yourself and we have, unfortunately, fallen on our own swords. At least, like me, we are only trying to advise people and to me that’s a good thing.

      Viv – Australia

        rationalbrain responded:
        May 13, 2014 at 4:38 am

        Hi Viv
        Interesting to hear you’ve had similar problems, but I hope you’ve caught things in time. A timely warning that some of these so-called ‘natural’ medicines are still active pharmacologically.
        I think it’s fair to say that no-ones health would be compromised if Swisse products cease to exist tomorrow. And because bugger-all real testing has been done on them, no self-respecting practitioner is going to prescribe or recommend them.
        So keep doing your research – look for proper clinical trials – just google Cochrane Collaboration for a start – and then consult your doctor.

    Jess said:
    May 29, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    I started taking the swisse liver detox for the last two weeks I started off fine, but as the days went on I started becoming extremely ill, head aches, nausea and random bleeding. I then started to get excruciating back pain and have been throwing up with diarreah every day for a week after stopping them. I have never felt this sick in my entire life. I started taking them as I have a fatty liver. So I went to the doctor and he said to me straight away that he’s seen people with liver failure from taking the detox tablets and that the only way I can detox and regenerate my liver is if I lose weight. I’m not very good at telling stories but I just wanted to say be careful.

      rationalbrain responded:
      June 2, 2015 at 9:43 am

      Hi Jess
      Sorry to hear of your run-in with these things – not an uncommon story – thanks for sharing.
      rb

    In my opinion | This Lupus Life said:
    June 10, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    […] have magnet bracelets and take supplementary vitamins (both of which have clearly been shown to be not as advertised. But the placebo effect is used in medicine research and therapies for a very important reason. It […]

      rationalbrain responded:
      June 12, 2015 at 10:14 am

      You overstate the benefits of the placebo effect.
      It may make you ‘feel’ better, but there is really no evidence of any physiological change as a result of it.
      It comes down to reported outcomes versus measurable, objective outcomes. Placebo does well with the former, but definitely ineffective when relying on objective measures.

    Valerie said:
    November 12, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    Like Vivienne I also self medicated with Swisse Liver Detox for around the last 2 months because my LFTs have been elevated. I had my LFTs this week and they are very abnormal. Because I had gall bladder cancer and a 2 segment Liver resection in 2013 my doctor was concerned about my abnormal test result. He was ready to send me for an Mri and ct scan. When I mentioned that I was on a liver detox supplement he backtracked, said he had seen this reaction before and said I should stop the tablets today, then have another blood test in a week. It will be interesting to see what my results are then. I am a constant alcohol consumer.

      rationalbrain responded:
      November 12, 2015 at 11:32 pm

      Hi Valerie
      Seems there are a lot of these stories out there now.
      Swisse have a lot to answer for.
      I’m betting your results will improve.

    Cleo said:
    November 29, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    A huge amount of medical research is falsified, non-existent, ghost written, or just blatantly lies. Is is worth learning how to read research to tell the good from the questionable. Milk thistle doesn’t generally cause these sort of reactions mentioned above, it is more likely one of the crappy excipients used in Swisse products which shouldn’t be in there: Microporous Cellulose , Magnesium Stearate (Vegetable)Contains 2% or less , Polyvinyl AlcoholContains 2% or less , SilicaContains 2% or less , Titanium DioxideContains 2% or less , Polyethylene GlycolContains 2% or less , Sodium CroscarmelloseContains 2% or less , CrospovidoneContains 2% or less , Hydrated Magnesium SilicateContains 2% or less , Caramel Coloring Contains 2% or less

      rationalbrain responded:
      November 29, 2015 at 5:13 pm

      That’s the problem, Swisse do bugger all testing, so how would anyone know? That”s the big issue here.

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