The True Dangers of Detox

By: Olivia Morrison

I remember being 16 years old and swiping passed Kim Kardashian’s post on Instagram promoting this next big health trend ‘FitTea.’  Kim was just one voice in a deafening choir of celebrities and influencers who also flooded young girls’ Instagram feeds with their mirror selfies clutching onto a brand new box of this ‘all powerful’ tea. Cardi B, Khloe Kardashian, Iggy Azalea, Amber Rose, Jennette McCurdy are just a few of the female celebrities who promoted the supposed weight loss and detoxifying effects of an array of brands: FitTea, SlimTea, Detox Tea. The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, with an overwhelmingly early teen and tween female following base, promoting products like FitTea not only sets an unattainable goal for young women, but it also speaks to the status quo social media propagates where the line between what is science and what is merely performative marketing is unequivocally blurred. The truth is: FitTea is a largely unnecessary product and money making ploy, bereft of scientifically-based research. The human body has its own detoxifying system (Klein and Kiat, 2014). 

What celebrities failed to mention, however, was that their Instagram posts were all paid partnerships, not genuine testimonies on the efficacy of a scientifically proven product. While using one’s large social media following to promote a non-FDA approved product not only encourages young women to equate physical appearance to physical health, it also normalizes the absence of science and due research that makes up the majority of ‘health’ trends on social media. The promotion of FitTea to a highly influential, young, female market not only underscores the insincere and merely performative sentiment that makes up the most of paid partnerships, it also epitomizes how the majority of health products seen on social media are the antithesis of science. 

Kim’s post on Instagram in 2016 emphasized that FitTea rewards minimal effort with unparalleled results. According to her, drinking this magical liquid could easily transform how women feel and look within seconds. Let’s actually look into what FitTea’s array of ingredients are: “organic green tea, oolong wu yi, garcinia cambogia extract, pomegranate, organic rooibos, ginger, stevia, honey, guarana, citric acid, sea salt, lemon juice, [and] matcha green tea.” There are only four main ingredients at play here: organic green tea, oolong wu yi, garcinia cambogia extract, and guarana citric acid. The remaining ingredients are there to enhance the taste and flavor of the tea. 

Both green tea and oolong tea have been consumed for thousands of years as both have a long history of promoting human longevity and wellbeing, and are also popular alternatives to coffee and water. Green tea is non-fermented and oolong tea is semi-fermented, both contain high levels of caffeine (Rothenberg 2018).  Green tea has been known to regulate both cholesterol and aging, and can also reduce inflammation (Prasanth et al, 2019).  Green tea polyphenols have also been “observed to exhibit potential effects in inhibiting tooth decay and reducing blood pressure,” with “antibacterial, antioxidant, and antitumor” properties (Prasanth et al, 2019).  According to The American Journal on Nutrition, the “acute ingestion of green tea can increase fat oxidation during moderate-intensity exercise,” but does not, however, have a direct correlation to weight loss  (Venables et al, 2008). A study in China also discovered that drinking 1 to 2 cups of green or oolong tea daily could reduce the risk of “ischemic stroke risk,” but, again, does not have a significant effect on weight loss (Khan and Mukhtar, 2013). 

The other main ingredient is garcinia cambogia extract, which is a plant species native to South Asia containing a type of citric acid, known as HCA (Onakpoya et al, 2011). A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that there was “a small difference in change in body weight between the HCA and placebo groups,” reaffirming the larger clinical understanding that weight reducing effects of most dietary supplements and herbal blends are not substantial (Onakpoya et al, 2011).  Garcinia cambogia is also the main ingredient in the dangerous weight loss supplement Hydroxycut which is well-known for its severe side effects known to cause acute liver failure (Dara et al 2008). The extract is a dangerous supplement and has only been used in clinical trials to understand its efficacy in helping individuals who suffer from “visceral fat accumulation type of obesity,” but should not be consumed by young women as a weight loss supplement. The American Journal of Gastroenterology warns that “at minimum, its use for dieting purposes should be cautioned” (Sidhu et al, 2016). 

The last ingredient is guarana citric acid, a herbal blend extracted from guarana seeds. Guarana citric acid “contains more caffeine than any other plant in the world, with levels ranging from 2% to 8%,” and has been known to lead to caffeine overdose (Higgins et al, 2010). Oolong tea, green tea, HCA and garcinia cambogia all contain high levels of caffeine which is extremely dangerous. According to the National Institute of Health, consuming large amounts of caffeine commonly causes rapid heartbeat, nervousness, jitteriness, vomiting, and tachycardia – a heart rate of over 100 beats per minute.

In 2017, the National Advertising Division (NAD), which is tasked with “reviewing national advertising for truthfulness and accuracy, and fostering public confidence in the credibility of advertising,” found that FitTea’s product was misleading its customers. After its findings, the NAD discovered that “there was no evidence that drinking FitTea by itself will boost metabolism, boost immunity, burn fat or otherwise result in weight loss” (KARDASHIAN, Kourtney, et. al. (FitTea), Report #6046, NAD/CARU Case Reports, January 2017). Following the NAD’s findings, FitTea removed the claim that the drink “boosts energy” and “supports metabolism.” 

FitTea’s website states that the product is a  “detoxifying tea blend of certified organic herbs.” Using the term “detoxifying” to describe the tea, however, is extremely misleading; FitTea has no scientifically proven detoxifying properties. The CDC and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry defines detoxification as “the process of removing a poison or toxin or the effect of either from an area or individual.” (Allen et al, 2011). 

 Globalization and mass-industrialization has increased the amount of “synthetic chemicals and metals in the environment” meaning the human exposure of something called “persistent bioaccumulative toxicants (PBTs)” has grown exponentially (Allen et al, 2011). Exposure to certain PBTs directly correlates with multiple adverse health effects, including “endocrine disruption, neurological issues, reproductive effects, cancers and cardiovascular diseases” (Allen et al, 2011). The clinical definition of detox refers to “detoxing” the body of toxins, like PBTs, to inhibit further development of severe health conditions. 

FitTea is advertised as promoting weight loss and getting “fit,” but it falsely equates detoxification with weight loss. The two are not the same. Weight is not a “toxin” and, therefore, has nothing to do with “detoxification.” There is also no scientific backing that FitTea, a glorified caffeinated tea, has the ability to detoxify one’s body of toxins, like PBTs. Many brands like FitTea have taken the scientific definition of detox, reclaimed it, and continually use the word in a diametrically inaccurate way, without due research.  A study published by the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics found that “no randomized controlled trials have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of commercial detox diets in humans” (Klein and Kiat, 2014). 

The Main Takeaway 

Products like FitTea are clouding the truth about health and wellness for millions of young women. The human body is well equipped with its own detoxifying system. A normal-functioning individual doesn’t need an outside product to help detoxify, the body is more than able to do this process on its own (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2008). The liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal system, skin and lungs “all play a role in the excretion of unwanted substances” (Klein and Kiat, 2014). 

According to Harvard Medical School, instead, you should turn your attention to giving your body what it needs in order to protect its “robust self-cleaning system” (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2008). This might look like maintaining a healthy diet, drinking lots of fluid, regularly exercising, sleeping enough hours each night, and staying up to date with all advised medical check-ups.

Reference List:

Allen, Jason, et al. “Detoxification in Naturopathic Medicine: A Survey.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, vol. 17, no. 12, 2011, pp. 1175–1180., doi:10.1089/acm.2010.0572. 

Cohen, Pieter A. “Hazards of Hindsight — Monitoring the Safety of Nutritional Supplements.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 370, no. 14, 2014, pp. 1277–1280., doi:10.1056/nejmp1315559. 

Dara, Lily, et al. “Hydroxycut Hepatotoxicity: A Case Series and Review of Liver Toxicity from Herbal Weight Loss Supplements.” World Journal of Gastroenterology, vol. 14, no. 45, 2008, p. 6999., doi:10.3748/wjg.14.6999. 

Higgins, John P., et al. “Energy Beverages: Content and Safety.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, vol. 85, no. 11, 2010, pp. 1033–1041., doi:10.4065/mcp.2010.0381. 

Khan, Naghma, and Hasan Mukhtar. “Tea and Health: Studies in Humans.” Current Pharmaceutical Design, vol. 19, no. 34, 2013, pp. 6141–6147., doi:10.2174/1381612811319340008. 

Klein, A. V., and H. Kiat. “Detox Diets for Toxin Elimination and Weight Management: a Critical Review of the Evidence.” Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, vol. 28, no. 6, 2014, pp. 675–686., doi:10.1111/jhn.12286. 

“Office of Dietary Supplements – Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss.” NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/WeightLoss-HealthProfessional/

Onakpoya, Igho, et al. “The Use OfGarciniaExtract (Hydroxycitric Acid) as a Weight Loss Supplement: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomised Clinical Trials.” Journal of Obesity, vol. 2011, 2011, pp. 1–9., doi:10.1155/2011/509038. 

Prasanth, Mani, et al. “A Review of the Role of Green Tea (Camellia Sinensis) in Antiphotoaging, Stress Resistance, Neuroprotection, and Autophagy.” Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 2, 2019, p. 474., doi:10.3390/nu11020474. 

Publishing, Harvard Health. “The Dubious Practice of Detox.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-dubious-practice-of-detox

Rothenberg, Dylan, et al. “A Review on the Weight-Loss Effects of Oxidized Tea Polyphenols.” Molecules, vol. 23, no. 5, 2018, p. 1176., doi:10.3390/molecules23051176. 

Sidhu, Rajvinder, et al. “Garcinia Cambogia: A Link Between the ‘Miracle’ Weight Loss Pill and Acute Pancreatitis.” American Journal of Gastroenterology, vol. 111, 2016, doi:10.14309/00000434-201610001-01262. 

Venables, Michelle C, et al. “Green Tea Extract Ingestion, Fat Oxidation, and Glucose Tolerance in Healthy Humans.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 87, no. 3, 2008, pp. 778–784., doi:10.1093/ajcn/87.3.778.

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