Browsing web sites promoting alternative therapies or dietary supplements, you often encounter an overall distrust and rejection of the institutions of mainstream science and the money, power, and authority that is associated with them. The FDA is corrupt and power-hungry, doctors – except maybe the ones who run natural healing centers in the southwest – are closed-minded assholes who’ve been brainwashed by their medical textbooks, and prescription drugs are at best a way for drug companies to line their pockets and at worst chemical killers. Whether or not there’s some truth to these negative sentiments, I always find it ironic that the internet marketing of so many of these products relies on doctor’s testimonials, descriptions of biological mechanisms written in technical language, and the results of (published or unpublished) scientific research.
While scientific evidence can be used to win over both hearts and minds, you only have to win someone’s heart to get them to buy your product, and for this the appearance of credibility is often more important than the gritty details. In this two-part article, I focus on one increasingly-popular dietary supplement being sold over the internet. In this first installment, I examine the façade of scientific authority surrounding the marketing of this product. In the second piece, I’ll consider the scientific evidence that actually exists for it’s efficacy.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine forwarded me an email that began like this:
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Subject: This could be affecting you, your family, and your children...
This is AMAZING information regarding a natural ZEOLITE compound used to remove heavy metals, viruses, bacteria, major toxins, and soooo much more from the body. My goal is to inform as many as possible and expose people to what is going on ... It is making us sick! This is too important to you and your family's health to overlook. I hope you do not dismiss, thinking it does not apply to you or because it is something new and different …
The email went on – I and the people I love are AT RISK. We are EXPOSED DAILY to toxins, in our food, water, air, and the commerical (sic) products we use - NO ONE is immune to this onslaught. My apparent feeling of good health is a COMPLETE ILLUSION. In reality, I’m SICK, SICK, SICK - barely a husk of a person, slowly being destroyed from the inside out by TOXINS, VIRUSES, and BACTERIA.
As I continued reading, I learned that zeolites are not just for the deceptively healthy – they’re also good if you have any of the following:
ADD/Hyperactivity, Addiction, Agent Orange Exposure, Arthritis, Autism, Cysts and Tumors, Depression, DES Exposure, Diabetes, Fibromyalgia, Flu, Colds, and Respiratory Problems, Gastro-Intestinal Problems, Heavy Metal Poisoning, Hepatitis C, High Blood Pressure, Kidney Stones, Lack of Mental Clarity, Pain, PMS/Menstrual Pain, Silicone Breast Implant Toxicity, Skin Conditions, Toothache/Gum Disease, Varicose and Spider Veins, Viral and Other Infections, Yeast Infections … In addition, zeolite may well be one of the most potent natural preventatives and treatments for cancer ever discovered.
Dear God – Agent Orange Exposure? Come to think of it, I have had a striking lack of mental clarity lately.
Ok, now I’m a busy guy, with plenty of better things to do than follow up on some crank email about miracle treatments. But like I said, this wasn’t spam; it was forwarded from a friend of mine, and so I actually had to confront the notion that some people might be spending money on what appeared to me to be a gigantic steaming load of crap with scientific sprinkles on top. And that thought annoyed the hell out of me.
Why? Well, first of all, I don’t think it’s right to be emailing people you barely know and telling them that despite what they may think or feel, they’re very, very sick. Now I know that there’s mercury in my tuna, smog in my lungs, and hormones in my water. I know that I eat and drink things that aren’t good for me, that I don’t exercise as much as I should. But despite all that, I manage to feel ok and unless they know something I don’t, I’m not hot about someone trying to convince me that I should feel otherwise.
Secondly, as much as I don’t believe that there’s anything very “pure” about science, I still hate to see scientific language, images, and “evidence” being whored around by a bunch of chumps with no respect. Try to find a site selling activated zeolite that doesn’t have a picture of a test tube, a chemical structure diagram, or some image of a schmuck in a lab coat (often next to an image of a volcano – but that’s a whole other story). I just hate to think that people are going to be conned into buying something because it’s been shellacked with a veneer of scientific credibility.
But those are both just mild annoyances. If I were credulous enough to believe every poorly-written email that landed in my inbox, I’d be a neurotic wreck with extreme performance anxiety, a closet full of herbal Viagra, and a lot of rich Nigerian friends. Furthermore, if I worried about every time someone tried to sell me something on the pretense that it was “scientifically proven,” I’d be even worse off. Common sense dictated that I just delete this email like the rest of the lot. But again, the fact that it was from someone I knew made me think twice: What if I did actually think I was sick? What if someone I loved did have cancer? The email said the company behind the product had just completed a preliminary study with 65 stage-four cancer patients, and 51 of them experienced complete remission. Would I think twice before deleting this email? Probably … and that’s what really bothered me: the thought that under different circumstances I might actually give this stuff a shot.
So I decided to look into it. What are zeolites? I had assumed the term was actually part of the marketing campaign, since it sounds so implausibly space-agey. But actually, it’s an 18th century amalgam of the Greek words for “stone” and “to boil”; The term refers to a family of 200 or so aluminosilicate minerals with a microporous structure, a honeycomb of aluminum and silicon atoms that enable them to bind or soak up a variety of other substances. The name comes from the observation that steam from adsorbed water causes some zeolites to dance when they are heated.
A Google search for “zeolite” yields confusing results. On the one hand, there are a plethora of web sites with names like www.zeoliteforyourhealth.com, www.liquidzeolite.org, and www.rawguru.com that sell tiny bottles of “Activated Liquid Zeolite,” or “Natural Cellular Defense” zeolite. Then on the other hand, there are mining companies like the Turkish firm www.incalzeolite.com, which advertises a production capability of “10,000 metric tons/month of high quality Zeolite,” or industrial firms that advertise zeolites for things like “rubber compounding,” or as “an excellent extrusion additive.”
As it turns out, what they’re selling is probably not that different. The zeolite sold as a miracle cure for cancer is a form of clinoptilolite; a bottle sells for anywhere from $50 to $150 dollars on the web. (Which, as this website points out, is ounce-for-ounce more expensive than gold.) The zeolite that is sold as a miracle cure for your lawn, for softening your water, for sprucing up your fish tank, or as a supplement for your livestock is also clinoptilolite – you can buy a metric ton of it for $330. Now I know what you’re thinking: “You’ve just given me the information I need to become filthy stinkin’ rich.” But before you fire up www.iheartzeolite.com and start filling gel-caps from those 50 lb sacks, you should know that the clinoptilolite dietary supplement is supposedly “activated.” Activation is a patented process which involves heating the mineral in an acidic solution and then cooling it back down– they kind of simple purification protocol you might have done in your Chem 101 lab in college if that was your thing.
The leading marketer of zeolite supplements is Waiora, a multi-level marketing firm that produces Natural Cellular Defense. Most of the individual web sites I found advertising zeolite supplements are part of the Waiora pyramid. The chairman of the Waiora Scientific Advisory Board that oversees the research and development of NCD and other products is Rik J. Dietsch. Dietsch is the go-to guy for questions about the efficacy and mechanisms of action of NCD. He’s cited as an authority on numerous websites (often with his title as scientific chairman), there are numerous videos and transcripts of him lecturing and answering questions about the science behind the zeolite supplement, and when some skeptic doctor blogs something negative about zeolite therapy, he’s ready with a reasoned and scientific response to their objections. But whenever his scientific credentials come up, things get a little vague:
“Research conducted by Rik J Deitsch provided some of the beginning fundamentals for the development of some powerful new drugs.”
“Mr. Deitsch holds both a BS in Chemistry and an MS in Biochemistry from Florida Atlantic University and has conducted research for the Duke University Medical School Comprehensive Cancer Center.”
“Mr Deitsch is an adjunct professor and teaches several courses for Florida Atlantic University's College of Business and Continuing Education Department.”
“[Mr Deitsch] conducted his PhD Research for the Duke University Medical School.”
“For?” the Duke University Medical School? “For?” That’s just slimy. Read it fast and you might actually think he “had” a PhD for research he had done “at” Duke. But of course he doesn’t – otherwise, you better believe that he’d be going by Dr. Deitsch, Chief Scientific advisor for Waiora, CEO of Nutra Pharma Corp, and President of Wellness Industries.
The central piece of evidence cited by many of the Waiora sites marketing zeolite supplements is the “Scientific Research Monograph” authored by Dietsch. Now, I think this document is, in a word, awesome – not because it’s an immaculate synthesis of a diverse body of evidence, nor because it is an eloquently framed argument for the efficacy of zeolite supplements – no, I am literally awestruck because it is such an incredible example of how any hack with a basic familiarity of scientific style can produce a document that, to a lay reader, may have all the appearance of scientific credibility and may actually give an air of authority to the author. And yes, speaking of the author’s authority, I have to admit: I am also astounded at the fucking massive cojones this guy has for putting his name on this document.
At first glance, the monograph appears to be a fair attempt to lay out the evidence for the efficacy of zeolite supplements. Dietsch is up front about the fact that he will focus only on the properties of zeolites that are “relevant to its effects as a supplement”. He states “the information presented in this monograph is intended for professional education and is obtained from published research, articles, and books,” and he refers to the monograph as “this Review.” Like a typical scientific review, there’s an introduction at the beginning, a list of references at the end, and in between, the evidence for the efficacy of zeolite supplements in a number of different areas is evaluated. The tone of the writing is relatively sophisticated, and some of the evidence Dietsch presents – for example, the effect of zeolites on the molecular pathways involved in apoptosis or cell death – seems worth considering.
Nonetheless, there’s something a little “off.” Dietsch’s scientific credentials are missing from his bio at the beginning, none of the figures have captions, and most strikingly, despite the list of references, none of the information in the article is specifically footnoted. This would be questionable enough, but what no-one else seems to have noticed about this document is that the figures and most of the substantive paragraphs appear to have been copied wholesale from a handful of books and journal articles; an astonishing level of plagiarism for a high-school book report, much less a “scientific research monograph” authored by the chief scientific advisor for the leading producer of a widely-marketed dietary supplement. Given the fact that he’s ripped off, word-for-word, most of the content of the monograph, the absolute best part about it for me is the copyright notice on the first page stating that “No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission from the author.” You can look at some examples of Dietsch’s plagiarism in this PDF, which places the monograph text side-by-side with the text from the uncited articles.
Granted, the fact that Dietsch and his monograph barely stand up as cardboard cutouts of scientific authority doesn’t necessarily mean the product he’s promoting doesn’t work. A PubMed search for “zeolite AND cancer,” for example, returns hundreds of articles published in legitimate scientific journals. On a couple zeolite supplement sites, they actually recommend that you do this search to see how much research is out there. Of course if you were to actually read the articles this turns out not to be such a good idea for them, because most of them are actually about how zeolites cause cancer. Whhaaaaa?! As it turns out, some zeolites are cancerous when inhaled (asbestos anyone?), but thankfully, clinoptilolite is not itself cancerous; it’s on the FDA’s GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) list. Actually, there are a couple publications (the ones that Dietsch rips off for his monograph) that have looked at the effects of clinoptilolite on cancer, and there are a number of articles on it’s effects as a dietary supplement. In the second part of this article, I’ll examine the evidence that’s out there and try to assess the plausibility of the zeolite-promoters. Until I get around to that, check out this guy’s site, and remember that old saying – just 30 drops a day keeps ADD/Hyperactivity, Addiction, Agent Orange Exposure, Arthritis, Autism, Cysts and Tumors…well you get the idea.
Related Feature - “Detox Your Life” by Julia Slone-Murphy
6.04.07 “The Zeolistas” by Jake Reimer-