Two out of three Australians regularly use complementary medicines, which constitute a A$3.5 billion domestic market. But the industry’s marketing strategies are a source of ongoing controversy and pose a significant challenge for regulators .
Companies have very clever marketing teams who come up with elaborate claims to put on their ads and bottles. For people who are eager to improve their health or condition, these statements really hit home. However, do they measure up? Are they worth the hefty investment?
Products containing krill oil provide a good example of the kinds of extravagant claims made by supplement manufacturers. The oil is derived from a tiny, shrimp-like crustacean and, like fish oil, contains omega-3 fatty acids.
Company claims include krill oil’s capacity to “relieve arthritic symptoms [of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis] within a short period of 7 to 14 days”, as well as its “superior absorption” and the curiously ambiguous “9x [strength]” of the less expensive fish oil. Such claims are found on product packs and manufacturers’ websites, as well as the websites of third-party stockists .
Unfortunately many of the claims made are not provided with research to back them up. The research that is available is often difficult to access or sounds good enough for those who place hope in the product.
‘The widely used claim that krill oil relieves the symptoms of arthritis within seven to 14 days appears to be based on a small 2007 study. The research focused on one specific formulation of krill oil, produced by a Canadian company. Possible conflicts of interest, including the source of funding for the study, are notably absent from the paper.
The study recruited 90 people with a confirmed diagnosis of one or more of cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis (ten people) and osteoarthritis (30 people). They were compared to placebo groups of 12 and 26. Three patients pulled out of the trial before completion, and 12 didn’t have a diagnosis of either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
While some results at seven and 14 days were deemed statistically significant, the meagre number of people involved raises questions about the clinical significance of its conclusions .’
As the above statement indicates, the evidence is weak to support such promising benefits. Further independent research should be conducted before luring people in to buying such products, likely under false pretences.
The claim of krill oil having “superior absorption” is also dubious and not supported by research evidence. A 2014 review of krill oil absorption actually concluded there was no evidence for krill oil being more easily absorbed by the human body .
There are regulations that complementary medicines have to comply with under the Therapeutic Goods Administration. These outline rules regarding quality and advertising. Unfortunately companies have ways of getting around some of these standards. This is why it is always a good idea to do some background research or ask a health professional before spending hundreds of dollars.
‘But manufacturers self-certify their compliance with TGA requirements. Limited, as well as poorly targeted, post-market surveillance of complementary products means they can contravene standards without fear of reprisal. Then there’s the lack of effective penalties to deter companies from breaching TGA regulations.
In May 2013, the Therapeutic Products Advertising Complaint Resolution Panel determined claims such as “9x stronger” and “reduce[s] pain, stiffness and inflammation caused by arthritis, within a short period of 7 to 14 days” breached a number of sections of the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code 2007 ’