Monday, 15 April 2013

Souvenir Supplements - the Perfect Gift?

In Sydney airport transfer lounge, 20 hours of flying behind me and another three ahead, I cast a bleary eye over the souvenir shops. Their shelves hold aboriginal art, expensive clothing items and a wide selection of souvenir food supplements. Gone are the days when you bring home tea towels or a fridge magnet for your mum. The on-trend global traveller is more likely to say: "I'm back darling, and I've brought you something that's supposed to be really good for arthritis!"
I imagine that the product development for these supplements probably goes like this: you identify a plentiful resource like kangaroos or sheep placentas and brainstorm how you could turn them into an income stream. Having honed in on the plan of selling supplements to the gullible you then make up some marketing blurb that includes a random selection of unspecific "things it must be good for" such as boosting your immune system/ reducing inflammation/ improving mobility of joints/ rebalancing energy/ restoring vitality/ boosting sexual performance and so on. Make sure you list the scientific analysis so you have some scientific words to put on the label. Throw in a few random "facts" and then commission your packaging.

Here are three examples from down under.

This interesting liquid is produced by mammalian mothers in the first few days after giving birth - the perfect food for their own particular species of newborn. Mouse colostrum is ideal for newborn mice while elephant colostrum is tailored to the needs of elephant babies.
Colostrum is very high in protein - much higher than true milk. Those who keep milk-producing animals sometimes use colostrum to cook a special dish. Just mix colostrum with some sugar and bake at a low heat. The result will apparently be a lot like egg custard. You couldn't do this with milk because its protein levels are much lower.
A significant proportion of the proteins in colostrum consist of antibodies (immunoglobulins). This download from the mother's immune system helps to protect the baby from infection until it can develop its own set of immunities to the microbes in its environment. Cow antibodies will protect against cow diseases and the kind of bacteria encountered every day in pastures and the milking parlour. Calves that are deprived of cow colostrum tend not to thrive - they seem to need it to prime their intestines. But why should the benefits of colostrum to newborn calves translate into health benefits for the adults of another species?  Adult humans don't need protecting against bovine diseases. And even if they did, why should we expect that these complex molecules would survive pasteurisation, drying, packaging and digestion by a human stomach? Is there in fact any evidence that consuming cow colostrum has any benefits to human health?
The website of the "Institute of Colostrum Research" seemed to be a promising place to find the answers to these questions. But alas no - not a single link to research could I find.
The Centre for Nutritional Research, also keen on (selling) colostrum is also long on supposition and short on research.

Lamb Placenta Extract
Many animals eat their placentas. I remember once watching my son's pet gerbil giving birth to a large litter and as each one emerged she grabbed the placenta in her front paws and nibbled it, in exactly the same way that she ate sunflower seeds. This was certainly a way of reclaiming some of the nutritional resources, such as iron, that she had devoted to pregnancy. I don't think sheep tend to eat their placentas and I can imagine that people scratching a marginal existence by herding might well scoop them up and make them into a nutritious casserole. But what on earth are pills made from sheep placentas supposed to do for your health other than perhaps act as an iron supplement? Somehow pass on the joie de vivre of a lamb?
The marketing takes a broad-brush approach and mentions things like growth hormones and the wonderful health of the sheep used in production. It's good for all kinds of things, honestly - "rejuventating your organic tissue" for example. I particularly liked the nugget of "information" that sheep's placentas have been used as medicine by the British royal family for 1400 years. Must be good stuff then.

Kangaroo Extract.
The marketing for this emphasises the vigour and sexual potency of the male kangaroo, conjuring up visions of great-grandad leaping from his wheelchair and doing a pogo dance around the lounge while singing a Rolf Harris medley and casting a flirtatious eye at the care staff. Why kangaroo extract should be any more revitalising than, say, beef extract, is not at all clear. But there are large segments of world population that believe in the "law of similars". The law that dictates that if a rhino horn reminds you of an erect penis then extract of rhino horn is bound to do wonders for the flagging erection. If you could distill the essence of a big bouncy virile 'roo, why would it not have a beneficial effect on the aging male? You know it makes sense.
This one may also play to the jokey present market.  "Didn't know what to get you dad but you've been looking a bit tired lately so I got you some Kangaroo extract."

The trouble is that these products, with their vague, "natural" marketing messages, feed into two main belief systems. One is the oriental medicine trade that greedily slaughters wild animals in the interests of producing tonics and impotence cures. Only today I read about the seizure of a large cargo of dead anteaters (pangolins) destined for this market. Endangered plants can also be plundered and rare habitats damaged. There may be plenty of 'roos but I doubt that pangolins are an inexhaustible resource.
The other is the western belief that any natural product extracted from plants or animals is not only health-inducing but somehow superior to modern medicine. It is an alluring idea, but alas, it is just not true, however much we would like it to be. Why should we care? Firstly because some people turn down conventional treatment for serious diseases, believing supplements can cure them. And secondly because people who are not well educated in scientific scepticism are tricked into spending their scarce funds on these products.


  1. I've been taking kangaroo extract for a while now, and I've been a bit up and down.

    (Boom boom)

    Seriously, this "it's natural therefore it must be good for us" stuff is dangerous, as you say. For example, if humans eat polar bear liver they die - yes, DIE!

  2. (I mean the HUMANS die. *Obviously* the polar bear dies too.)