Snake oil for the 21st century

Health claims that are too good to be true

Published: September 2013

"Instantly take off 10–15 pounds!" "Stay sharp and mentally focused—even at age 90!" "Help almost every health problem ever experienced by a human being!"

Yes, a century and a half after "snake oil" salesmen roamed the U.S. selling fake medical cures, marketers are still touting an array of products with health claims that seem a little … exaggerated, to use a word our legal department will allow. Among the pitches in our mailbag, in addition to those above: ads for youth hormones, Chinese miracle berries, stem-cell anti-aging nostrums, and a device that lets you "exhale your excess weight."

How can companies get away with such grandiose claims? Some don't. (See below.) But marketers can be very savvy about what they claim, according to Mary Engle, associate director for advertising practices at the Federal Trade Commission, which is charged with protecting consumers from deceptive business practices. "They won't say something directly or expressly," Engle says, "but they will imply it by other things they say, or by certain imagery, and those can be harder cases for us." A product might not state outright that it prevents colds in children, for instance, but will create that impression with images of kids and terms such as "boost immunity."

It's a 'miracle'!

Health products are an especially fertile area for scams in part because most people can't tell whether a product is really helping, experts say. Marketers often capitalize on the hopes of those who need to lose weight or have a hard-to-cure illness. "People may be desperate to try something else if nothing is working," Engle says. The concerns of an aging population are fodder for scams, so memory-boosting products are on the FTC's radar. And digital technology has opened up a new avenue for scammers: mobile apps that claim to detect or treat diseases.

How can you spot a scam? Aside from an overuse of exclamation points and funky grammar ("smoothens deep wrinkles"?), questionable health products often claim to: work for everyone or treat a wide range of diseases; enhance weight loss, sexual performance, or memory; or work super-fast ("eliminates skin cancer in days"). And some modern snake-oil makers accuse the government and drug industry of hiding their "breakthrough technology" or "miracle cure" from the public.

If you think you've found a fraudulent product, contact the FTC at or 877-382-4357.

Health claims that were too good to be true

Q-Ray bracelet

It was claimed to alter the body's energy, relieving pain, and the maker cited a study showing that wearers had less pain.

Busted. The FTC said in 2011 that nearly $12 million would be refunded to people who bought bracelets between 2000 and 2003. It added that in the study, a placebo bracelet relieved pain as well as Q-Ray. The website now calls Q-Rays "wellness bracelets."


This blend of nutrients was claimed to aid speech development in children "as soon as the first week."


Busted. In August, a division of the Better Business Bureau recommended that Speak's maker, NourishLife, stop certain ad claims. The action came at the urging of Truth in Advertising, a consumer-watchdog group. NourishLife has removed some claims and testimonials from its website.

AcneApp and Acne Pwner

The maker claimed these apps treated acne with colored lights from smart phones or other mobile devices.


Busted. The FTC announced in 2011 that the apps' makers agreed to a settlement barring them from making acne-treatment claims without competent and reliable scientific evidence.

Editor's Note:

This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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