Critics of the supplements industry, and those who are suspicious of supplements and their manufacturers will often make this point;

“These supplements haven’t been proven to be safe.”

In this article we look at this statement and whether it’s a fair one to make. Whilst the article might focus on supplements, the statement above is actually more relevant to philosophy than science. The arguments made here apply to all things and concepts, not just pills designed to improve your health.

OK, the following example is slightly facetious but it illustrates an important point about burden of proof.

Let’s say I create a new lasagne. I think it’s awesome. I’ve travelled in Italy, I’ve eaten in countless Italian restaurants throughout the world. I’ve eaten all manner of manufactured lasagnes – but the one I’ve made is the best in my opinion. I decide to create a new brand and sell it. My friend’s wife isn’t impressed. “You can’t prove to me it’s safe” she says.

I reply that it’s just pasta, minced beef, carrots, garlic, tomatoes, onion, mushroom, seasoning and some herbs. I’ve sourced them all from reputable butchers and farmers, there are no pesticides used, they are all organic, nothing has been genetically modified. The cattle the beef comes from has been grass fed and never been given hormone injections. The pasta is handmade from the best flour and free range eggs. The salt is unprocessed sea salt, it’s all the best of stuff.

“That’s all very well”, she responds, “but how do you know that the exact combination of those ingredients is safe?. How do you know that that particular balance of carrots, onions, beef etc doesn’t combine together into a perfect storm – a perfectly deadly storm.”

I decide to accommodate her wishes. So I set up a program, I need to make it a decent size so I recruit 1000 people and get them to eat my lasagne every day for a week.

“That’s not long enough.” she says, “That doesn’t prove it’s safe – how do you know these people won’t develop long term health problems from this lasagne decades from now? To prove this lasagne is safe this study would need to last at least 20 years. Plus look at your subjects, they are all predominantly white people from your neighbourhood. How can you be sure that this lasagne won’t trigger a reaction in a rare gene specific to one race? This lasagne could be deadly to the Japanese or Koreans for example.”

I decide to make the study global, and plan it for 20 years. I search out every ethnicity on the planet and recruit a statistically significant sample of them for my study. I hire Bear Grylls to trek through the darkest corners of the Amazonian rain forest and seek out previously undiscovered tribes to help test this lasagne for safety, and make sure it is safe. I go further, in each of these ethnic groups I recruit both genders, pregnant females, people with all hair colours and$ blood types, and a spread of all age groups.

My friend’s wife is not satisfied.

“How do you know that this lasagne doesn’t cause adverse health effects on someone with a specific medical condition?”, she asks.

I indulge her. I seek out subjects for the study which have medical complaints and allergies. I’m not talking about common conditions like diabetes, or common intolerances like lactose or gluten. I am talking about EVERY intolerance and EVERY medical condition ever diagnosed, however rare.

Would my friend’s wife be satisfied? I don’t know (this example is getting silly) and from what I know of my friend’s wife, she isn’t the kind that ever would be. This illustrates a point, it is IMPOSSIBLE to prove that this lasagne is completely safe. Literally impossible. You cannot ever state with 100% absolute certainty that there isn’t someone, somewhere on this planet that wouldn’t have some kind of bizarre disagreement with this lasagne.

The reason? I am trying to prove that my lasagne does not cause any health problems and it’s simply not possible to prove this. You can only prove that it DOES cause health problems by establishing a specific case and demonstrating scientifically the chain of events by which the lasagne can make somebody ill.

This is the same principle used in debates about the existence of God to ‘prove that God doesn’t exist’. You cannot do that. The burden of proof lies with the believer to demonstrate that He does exist.

This concept is illustrated by The Cosmic Teapot. In 1952, philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) illustrated that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making scientifically unfalsifiable claims rather than shifting the burden of proof to others. You can read more about it here;

Astronomer Carl Sagan used Russell’s teapot in his book The Demon-Haunted World, and stated;

“Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.”

However – I am not taking a position that supplements are all safe and it’s up to individuals to prove otherwise. Supplement manufacturers have to take reasonable care that what they are selling is safe. To do this they must be able to demonstrate that they have thoroughly researched the ingredients they’ve used and the dosages they’ve decided on.

My big problem with this (as you’ll see if you look through the reviews of test boosters) is that so many of then manufacturers include ingredients which have either;

  • Been thoroughly debunked by clinical testing
  • Have not got any genuine history of testing and have no pedigree or credentials

And we are not talking about the odd one or two here, we are talking about loads of the products from some of the big names. Included dud ingredients means to me that they haven’t done their homework. And if they haven’t done their research into the efficacy of the ingredients properly then that begs the obvious question – have they done their research into the safety of those ingredients?

I take supplements regularly (TestoFuel in case you are interested), as well as Omega 3. My opinion on safety is that in relation to supplements;

  1. If the ingredients involved have never been proven to cause any health problems.
  2. If the ingredients were all naturally occurring.
  3. If the ingredients had a long history of medicinal use in a culture (ie Ayurveda).
  4. If the product has been sold for a reasonable length of time (ie years) with no reported serious health effects by customers.
  5. If the product is manufactured in safe and certified premises.
  6. If the product is sealed and untampered with.
  7. If the supplier is a reputable organisation.

Then it is wrong to assume that the product is unsafe. A lot of people do though, and it’s in a large part down to the media’s demonisation of the industry.

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