Two out of three Australians regularly use complementary medicines, which constitute a domestic market of 3.5 billion Australian dollars. But the industry’s marketing strategies are a source of ongoing controversy and pose a significant challenge to regulators.
Products containing krill oil are a good example of the kinds of outlandish claims made by supplement manufacturers. The oil is derived from a tiny shrimp-like crustacean and, like fish oil, contains omega-3 fatty acids.
The company’s claims include krill oil’s ability to “relieve arthritic symptoms [of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis] in a short period of 7 to 14 days”, as well as its “superior absorption” and the curiously ambiguous “9x [strength]» of the cheapest fish oil. These claims can be found on the manufacturers’ product packs and websites, as well as the websites of third-party retailers.
Few companies provide links to research supporting such claims. Existing research is not readily available to most consumers, who can rarely assess its validity anyway.
Claims and science
The widely held claim that krill oil relieves arthritis symptoms in 7-14 days appears to be based on a small study from 2007. The research focused on a specific formulation of krill oil, produced by a Canadian company. Possible conflicts of interestincluding the source of funding for the study, are notably absent from the document.
The study recruited 90 people with a confirmed diagnosis of at least one cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis (ten people) and osteoarthritis (30 people). They were compared to placebo groups of 12 and 26. Three patients withdrew from the trial before the end, and 12 had no diagnosis of osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
While some results at seven and 14 days were found to be statistically significant, the small number of people involved raises questions about the clinical significance of his findings.
Regardless of this and other details in the report that suggest only people with very severe cases of illness were included, the results of this early and isolated study can at best be considered preliminary. And a search for a comprehensive research database found no evidence that the results had been independently reproduced.
The claim that krill oil has “superior absorption” is also dubious and unsupported by research evidence. A 2014 review of krill oil absorption in fact concluded that there was no evidence that krill oil is more easily absorbed by the human body.
Companies that market complementary medicines in Australia are legally required to comply with standards set by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). These standards relate to both product quality and advertising claims.
But the manufacturers themselves certify their compliance with the TGA requirements. Limited and poorly targeted post-market surveillance of complementary products allows them to violate standards without fear of retaliation. Then there is the lack of effective penalties to deter companies from breaching TGA regulations.
In May 2013The Therapeutic Products Advertising Complaint Resolution Committee determined claims such as “9 times stronger” and “reduced[s] pain, stiffness and inflammation caused by arthritis, within a short period of 7-14 days” violated a number of sections of the 2007 Therapeutic Product Advertising Code.
He said such statements:
must be supported by a large body of scientific evidence involving a number of independent studies.
But claims continue to be made, even by companies asked to withdraw them.
Many reports over the past decade have recommended addressing the lack of effective sanctions for wrongdoing companies. But it seems unlikely that any changes will be implemented anytime soon, as both the industry and government support a program of deregulation.
Meanwhile, consumers continue to be ripped off by products that cannot deliver on the promises they make.