Murky Mercola

mercolaIf you haven’t heard of Joe Mercola, you have not been surfing the waves of health advice on the web. He is an osteopathic physician whose practice now is limited to offering mostly iffy medical advice on his website and selling a variety of questionable products. He claims his website “is not a tool to get me a bigger house and car, or to run for senate.”. He says he funds his site and therefore, is not handcuffed to any advertisers, silent partners or corporate parents and profit generated from the sale of the products he recommend goes right back into maintaining and building a better site, “ a site that, startling as it may be with all the greed-motivated hype out there in health care land, is truly for you.” Gee, that sounds like motherhood and apple pie. It seems though that not every penny earned goes back into the managing the website. Mercola lives high on the hog in a multi-million dollar estate in Chicago. That wouldn’t be objectionable if the edifice were built on gains from promoting sound science. But that is not the case.

Besides being critical of vaccination, calling microwave ovens dangerous, questioning whether the HIV virus is the cause of AIDS, opposing homogenized milk, claiming that sunscreens increase the risk of skin cancer, Mercola hypes and sells a variety of pseudoscience-laced products. Let’s start with “Dr. Mercola’s Earthing Universal Mat,” which is described thus: “When you walk barefoot on the Earth, there’s a transfer of free electrons from the Earth into your body that spread throughout your tissues. The effect is sufficient to maintain your body at the same negatively-charged electrical potential as the Earth. This simple process is called ‘grounding.’ If you constantly wear materials like rubber or ‘plastic’ shoes, which are both very effective insulators, you’ll be disconnected from the natural energy that flows from the Earth.” Well, in my view, the only thing you will be disconnected from is science. This business of improving health by walking barefoot or by using Mercola’s Earthing Mat is nonsense. But Mercola tells us that his mat “is a great way to complement any outside ‘barefooting’ you might be able to fit into your busy schedule. It’s a quick and easy way for you to get started grounding whether at home, at the office, or almost anywhere you go.” I prefer to get my grounding from science not fairy tales.

Dr. Mercola also sells books such as “Dark Deception” in which he describes how we need sun exposure for health. But he would prefer to expose you to the tanning beds he sells, the same ones health experts agree are dangerous and increase the risk of skin cancer. There is also Dr. Mercola’s “organic deodorant” with “baking soda as the “active ingredient.” Except that it isn’t very active. There are also supplements galore. Like “breast health formula,” “mushroom complex” and “silver solution,” none of is a solution to anything. His bamboo toilet paper I’m sure does as good a job as any other, but the claim that it is better because it is free of toxic BPA can be safely flushed away.

Dr. Joe Schwarcz

A miracle bites the dust

niacinIt’s frustrating, but most scientific studies end with the line, “more research is needed.” But not always. We have one of these rare cases in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine about the use of niacin to improve cholesterol profile. Niacin is familiar to many as the B vitamin that prevents pellagra but when it is used to decrease LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and increase HDL (the “good” cholesterol) it is given in far higher doses than the amount that prevents pellagra. At a dose of 1000 mg a day, niacin is a drug. It has been used for decades in people with cholesterol problems because it clearly does decrease LDL and increases HDL. But that is not the same as reducing cardiac events. Now we have a study that quite categorically shows that in spite of the impact on cholesterol levels, niacing does not reduce cardiac events. Furthermore, it complicates diabetes and results is an increased risk of gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal and dermatological problems.

This was a very well designed study of some 25,000 people who were taking statin drugs because of cardiac risk. They were properly randomized to take a placebo or time-released niacin in combination with laropripran, added to reduce the classic flushing side effect of niacin, After four years the results were definitive. No reduction in cardiac events and an increase in side effects. No doubt the “natural treatment” advocates will declare that this study was contrived by Big Pharma to show that natural therapies do not work. Of course at doses needed to alter blood cholesterol, niacin can hardly be called natural. We’ll see how many of the websites that promote niacin for reducing cardiac risk will change their sales pitch. Will Dr. Agatston change his mind? How about Dr. Oz who also recommends taking 400 mg of niacin a day. And Joe Mercola, who wildly promoted niacin on Dr. Oz’s show while telling people to stay away from statins? Will be interesting to see.


Joe Schwarcz



Joe Mercola and “Foods You Should Never Eat.”

Dr. MercolaJoe Mercola is an osteopath who runs a popular health website on which he offers all sorts of advice, mostly questionable. He also sells a huge variety of products ranging from an array of supplements to Himalayan salt, organic clothing and tanning beds. These products, like most of Mercola’s advice, are sold based on a mixture of truths, fallacies and outright absurdities, with the latter category dominating. Mercola himself is scientifically negligible, but as they say, even a blind squirrel sometimes finds an acorn. Recently he produced a manifesto highlighting “the nine foods you should never eat,” namely canned tomatoes, processed meats, margarine, vegetable oils, microwave popcorn, non-organic potatoes, table salt, soy protein isolates and artificial sweeteners. Let’s start with idea that, the whole concept of foods that “you should never eat” is flawed. It is always a question of how much. There is no doubt that a diet heavy in processed meats is undesirable, but eating a hot dog once in a while (preferably with an exciting baseball or hockey game in front of it) is not a death sentence. Mercola’s allegations about the danger of methanol as released from aspartame are senseless; methanol occurs in higher amounts naturally in many foods and beverages. Equally absurd is his push for Himalayan salt, and his claim that trace minerals found in it make it preferable over regular salt. Salt is salt and should be limited. Mercola’s notion that soy products are risky because they contain genetically modified components is scientifically unsupportable. While there may be some environmental issues, foods that contain ingredients derived from gm plants do not differ chemically from conventional varieties.
Mercola makes a number of factual errors. Microwave popcorn is to be avoided because it contains the contaminants PFOA and PFOS which according to Mercola are used to keep microwave packaging grease free. Not so. Compounds in the family of fluorinated alcohols are used. Margarine does not contain free radicals, these reactive species only have a cursory existence and are not found in foods. The insinuation that pesticide residues in potatoes present a danger is unsubstantiated. Such residues are carefully regulated and are found in trace amounts. The assertion that cooking with vegetable oils introduces oxidized cholesterol into the system is wrong. Cholesterol is not found in any vegetable product. Promoting coconut oil, a saturated fat, as the healthiest cooking oil is unfounded. The amount of bisphenol A introduced as a result of eating canned tomatoes is a minute component of the diet and is outweighed by the benefits of eating tomatoes. By and large, I would of course agree that a diet based on fresh, unprocessed foods is desirable. Our emphasis should be on consuming 7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Whether local or organic I don’t think makes much difference, but when a choice exists, and there is no big financial burden, might as well go for the organic. If there is something you should never swallow, I would say it is Mercola’s foolish rants about anything he doesn’t sell.


Joe Schwarcz

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