Supplements, the long war: An interview with Paul Crane (Part 1)
When you first hear the website’s name, UltimateFatBurner, you’re bound to think it’s just another hastily-constructed marketing tool for the latest fad supplement. But browse the website and you’ll soon find it’s a venerable database of science-based supplement reviews. When words like “miracle” or “revolutionary” are used, they’re put into skeptical quotes. Instead you’ll find reviews full of phrases like “control group” and “clinical trials”. This isn’t your typical supplement website.
Paul Crane, the founder of UltimateFatBurner, was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his years-long battle to put a scientific soul into the supplement industry monster.
BM: Could you tell me how you got started with this website and what your credentials are for writing about this topic?
PC: A friend of mine took me to the gym to have a workout in 1989, and I took to it like a fish to water. It was this growing interest in weight training and body building that ultimately lead to a fascination with supplements of all shapes and sizes.
My passion grew over the years, and as it did, I began to notice an emergence of a growing trend. It seemed product claims were being made with little regard for supporting evidence. I remember waking up one evening on the couch to a late night infomercial selling a weight loss product. As I sat there watching, bleary-eyed, I remember thinking, “Wait a minute! That’s nonsense!”
The “information” presented was so ridiculous and blatantly erroneous that I realized there was a real need to present consumers with a countering perspective — one that provided a realistic view, but wasn’t viscerally anti-supplement. UltimateFatBurner.com went live in 1999.
I do not have a formal scientific background. I do not consider that to be a detriment. In fact, I feel it works in my favor. After all, I approach the market from the point of view of an educated and skeptical consumer, who can make good, evidence-based decisions. That’s the ideal, in my opinion.
That said, UltimateFatBurner.com is really two people — myself and Elissa Lowe. Elissa is a food scientist and former research scientist at the University of California at Davis. She’s the “formal” scientist behind the site and the one I turn to if I need a hand deciphering an especially cryptic write up of clinical trial.
BM: How many of the products you review are promoted or discussed on TV?
PC: Since Dr. Oz started hyping weight loss products we’ve been making a point of reviewing almost everything he discusses. Obviously, anything mentioned on Oz generates a ton of interest online, and we want to be there to present people with an alternative (and realistic!) view, since it’s almost completely absent in other online discussions.
BM: Do you think television, particularly “non-commercial” television, like the news or daytime talk shows, is playing a big role in driving people toward supplements?
PC: Absolutely! Although I do not have statistics to support it, I highly suspect that the current biggest contributor to mainstream supplement use is, without a doubt, Dr. Oz. His reach extends far beyond his show (unfortunately), since everything featured on his show is picked up and echoed in mainstream media and online.
Of course, this problem has predated Oz and will persist long after he’s gone. Others have contributed over the years. Leslie Stahl of CBS News, for example, unwittingly got the ball rolling with Hoodia back in 2004, calling it “a natural substance that literally takes your appetite away”, despite there being no human clinical data to support such a statement.
BM: It seems like when I go to the drug store that there are two product categories that are absolutely overflowing on the shelves: treatments for colds and products to help people lose weight or build muscle. What do you think it is about nutrition that attracts so many pseudo-science driven products?
PC: Bodybuilding appeals to much smaller demographic — teenagers and young men predominantly — but it is a demographic with disposable income and few responsibilities, so it’s a profitable space for retailers to operate. Weight loss, on the other hand, is a massive “evergreen” market, particularly for women. As a manufacturer in this space, you won’t ever have to worry about your audience disappearing or people waking up one day and deciding they don’t need or want your products.
We are constantly being bombarded with seductively bad information that sounds reasonable and “scientific” while appealing to our needs and desires, yet most of us lack to tools and education needed to debunk it. When that nonsense comes from a highly-respected individual with impressive credentials (like Dr. Oz), it’s like people completely shut off their critical thinking processes.
Of course, I should point out here that the whole point of UltimateFatBurner.com is not to discourage the use of over-the-counter supplements altogether. Our job is to put things into proper context, to separate hype from reality, and to educate the consumer about over-priced products, shabby business methods, and unsupported claims.
BM: Can you recall any memorable stories you’ve heard from your readers about being misled or even harmed by nutrition supplements and diet fads?
PC: There are too many to mention. Of course, the stories are anecdotal and unconfirmed, as they come from the comments sections on our web site. Nevertheless, they are not difficult to believe, especially when many conform to the same pattern.
Most of the problems arise from the fact that consumers believe that “natural” alternatives to prescription weight loss drugs are safe and benign and, of course, nothing can be further from the truth.
Accordingly, they ignore label warning labels and directions and sometimes find themselves in an emergency room as a result. Some “over the counter” weight loss products contain an outrageous amount of caffeine — as much as 600 mg per daily dose — which can cause problems for individuals who have counter-indicated health issues. One example of this type of user experience:
I took 1 pill with a full glass of water 30 minutes before a meal and I ended up in the hospital. I had tachycardic heart palpitations where my resting heart rate lying down was 135 beats per minute. I felt like I was on a treadmill while lying down. My CK levels also jumped to 4500 from a muscle tissue breakdown in my blood stream and I hadn’t even started working out. The hospital transferred me to their cardiac wing overnight where I was hooked up to sodium chloride bags all night to flush my kidneys. I felt like my heart was pounding and the room was spinning for about 6 hours.
Check back for Part 2 of our interview with Paul Crane. In the next part he’ll give medical professionals his advice for how to discuss supplements with patients.