Detox Products Still Popular Despite Critics

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Nutritional Outlook, Volume 20, Issue 7

The detox category’s had its ups and downs, enjoying wild popularity and bullish sales, even as it comes in for criticism from the medical community and others.

The human body puts up with a lot. From “junk” food and three-buck beers at happy hour to environmental pollution and plain old stress, the assaults we withstand push us continually closer to becoming walking, talking superfund sites. So it’s a testament to our resilience that we survive it all-and it’s a reminder that if there were ever a heyday for detoxing, that day is now.

At the Natural Products Expo West trade show this past March, Nutrition Business Journal estimated that the liver-and-detox supplement sector grew 8.4% in the U.S. in 2016. But the detox category’s had its ups and downs, enjoying wild popularity and bullish sales, even as it comes in for criticism from the medical community and others.

The category’s advocates, though, remain optimistic about its prospects-and committed to seeing it, and consumers who turn to it, thrive. The trick, experts maintain, is for brands to promote ingredients that make good on their promises. As Sébastien Bornet, vice president global sales and marketing, Horphag Research Ltd. (Hoboken, NJ), says, “As consumers delve deeper into the most effective detox methods, we’ve seen increased interest in supplements that support detox and that are backed by science to support their claims.”


Our Bodies, but Better

Perhaps the first hurdle for detox products to overcome is the question of whether we need them at all. For while there’s little doubt that we live in a mildly toxic soup of a world, with potentially dangerous chemicals threatening to invade via inhalation, swallowing, or direct contact-or to emerge when our cells die and spit out their contents-millennia of evolution have endowed us with a pretty effective detoxification infrastructure built right it.

It comprises the skin, which acts as a first line of defense against invasion; the liver, which breaks down toxins before they can start harming our bodies; the kidneys, which sequester and eliminate those toxins in urine and feces; and the immune system, which basically fills any gaps that the other organs may have missed. And for most of us-even those with dubious health habits-this factory-loaded detox system does a remarkable job of keeping us well from one day to the next.

But, says Elyse Lovett, marketing manager, Kyowa Hakko USA (New York City), it doesn’t hurt to give that system a boost. “The liver and kidneys do a great job of detoxification,” she notes, “but sometimes stress and external factors decrease certain key nutrients in the body that are themselves important for detoxification, so eating foods or supplements that contain these nutrients is key.”

Bornet agrees, noting that the purpose of detox products isn’t to outdo or replace the body’s inherent cleansing, but “simply to support the natural function of the liver and kidneys-filtering out impurities and toxins.” After all, while those organs do well under ideal circumstances, after, say, a long night at the company holiday party, “supporting this function can help the body recover more efficiently,” Bornet claims.


What’s Driving Detox

And who wouldn’t sign on for that? A veritable who’s-who of celebrities has certainly shown interest, lifting the detox category’s profile in the process. As everyone from Dr. Oz and Oprah to Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyoncé, and more have praised and promoted “clean living” the detox way, fans who look to the famous for lifestyle hints have hopped onboard.

But detoxing appeals to more than merely the star struck. “Detox and ‘cleanse’ products continue to be a major draw for consumers trying to lead healthier lifestyles,” Bornet says. “In fact, ‘clean’ products are now one of the top-ten types of supplements consumers purchase.” He says the reason is a yearning to find “healthy options that provide wide-ranging benefits”-and that consumers believe detoxing delivers. “Through increased awareness and a broader variety of products,” he says, “more consumers now recognize detox as an efficient way to rid their bodies of toxins and pollutants from the air, their diets, and day-to-day stress.”

And a greater understanding of the causes of “toxic stress” also tilts consumers toward the category. A great example of this, Lovett says, is the inflammatory response. “The increased awareness of antioxidants’ role in preventing inflammation and their benefits with regard to detoxification is another huge driver in the category,” she says.

But Lovett also credits our desire for “health from within,” not to mention the enthusiasm of savvy young consumers, with keeping detox afloat. “The category has grown more sophisticated thanks to the millennial population and social media,” she says. “Whether it’s a sports figure or a healthy nutrition blogger, their willingness to share their wealth of knowledge while also sharing products they love has set the bar for a boom in the detoxification market within this population.”


Sweeping Sales

And something of a boom it’s been. Data from SPINS (Chicago) show that dietary supplements with a cleanse/detox focus rose 5.3% in the U.S. over the 52 weeks ending April 17, 2017, reaching an estimated $101.5 million in sales. Among the categories with the highest growth over that time were protein supplements and meal replacements (up 23.3%), followed by digestive aids and enzymes (up 22.1%), food supplements (up 11.8%), and herbal singles (up 9%).

As for product format, “The delivery method showing the highest growth rate is the softgel, up 23.9%, followed by capsule, up 19.7%,” says Kimberly Kawa, senior nutrition researcher at SPINS. “Outside the dietary supplement segment, detox/cleansing wellness teas are growing,” with bagged options accounting for $23.6 million in sales over the 52 weeks ending April 16, 2017. And though they still claim a smaller market share, she says, loose teas are growing at a faster rate than bagged-39.5% versus 2.9%, respectively.

Product launches featuring greens, fiber, and/or herbs, and those that focus on general whole-body cleaning or a “digestive sweep,” have garnered solid sales, Kawa continues, as have those that specifically target the detoxing of microorganisms or hormone metabolites. Another recent observation she’s made: a rise in hangover-relief and hangover-prevention-focused formulas.


Clearing Up Misperceptions

So it’s clear what consumers want from detox products-right? Perhaps not, as misperceptions about what, precisely, detox products do, and how they differ from supplements in other categories, persist.

Notes Bornet, “As more consumers learn to research products at the point of purchase, there’s been an increased effort to educate them about detox and what they should be looking for in products.” For example, “We’ve seen a lot of consumer interest stemming from juice cleanses, which are popular. But many individuals are educating themselves about healthy detox, and the potential hazards that come with juicing.” Those hazards include spikes in blood sugar caused by juices’ high glycemic index, the potential for weight gain (juices are concentrated sources of calories), and the risk of missing out on fiber that whole fruits supply-all of which makes juicing “not the healthiest detox route,” Bornet says.

Further, he adds, some confusion still muddies consumers’ understanding of how detox and weight-loss products differ. The distinction: Detox products, he says, should “support the body’s efforts to reduce internal toxins to help flush them out.” Weight-loss aids, on the other hand, while also helping cleanse, do so “with a larger focus on fiber and intestinal health, to support overall weight loss and fitness goals.”


Detox in Action

In any case, Lovett says, any claims that manufacturers make “should be substantiated with human studies with significant clinical outcomes.” And a 2015 study1 published in the European Journal of Nutrition showed that daily consumption of her company’s Setria brand of glutathione effectively increased body stores of this compound, often called the “master antioxidant.”

As Lovett explains, glutathione “is one of the key ingredients that belongs in the detox supplement space, and it’s getting a ton of buzz lately.” Her company’s branded glutathione purportedly supports liver, kidney, gastrointestinal-tract, and intestinal function-which matters, considering that those are “the body’s major detoxification pathways,” she says. How does glutathione do it? Via two mechanisms: “It helps eliminate toxins, ingested chemicals, and potential carcinogens that the body has already absorbed, and it intercepts and neutralizes toxins in the GI tract before they’re even absorbed.”

In the 2015 study, 54 healthy adults supplemented with 250 and 1000 mg of the product per day, respectively; after one, three, and six months, blood glutathione levels had risen versus baseline in both dose cohorts. “The study showed a reduction in oxidative stress and an increase in NK cytotoxicity, too,” Lovett says, referring to an indicator of enhanced immune response and activity.

For his part, Bornet points to a 2016 study2 showing that Robuvit, his company’s patented French oak-wood extract, “helped study participants recover hepatic function faster than control groups and counter the symptoms of temporary alcohol-related liver damage like fatigue, nausea, and mild liver enlargement.” The study also demonstrated no side effects of the supplementation regimen.

The ingredient, Bornet explains, is “rich in roburins and other flavonoids unique to oak wood.” These ingredients “enhance basic cellular functions to combat the aging process, increase energy, and fend off fatigue.” In the current study, 44 healthy, alcohol-consuming subjects were assigned to either a control group or to supplementation with the extract for 12 weeks, after which the supplement group showed significantly improved liver enzyme levels, decreased inflammation, and reduced plasma free radicals.

Supplementation also seemed to goose hepatic function more rapidly than in the control subjects, and to counter symptoms of temporary alcohol-related liver damage, including reduced tiredness and nausea and measurable improvements in liver enlargement. As Bornet says, the extract “has been shown to increase the liver’s enzyme capacity required to effectively neutralize toxins in the body, which is indicative of the liver having successfully dealt with [a] toxin challenge.”

Of course, these aren’t the only supplements getting noticed for their cleansing power. Lovett notes that “there are a lot of great ingredients for detoxification on the market, including milk thistle, turmeric, and artichoke.” And based on SPINS data, Kawa includes on her detox-ingredients-to-watch list probiotics, greens-“inclusive of wheat or barley grass”-Aloe vera and Moringa oleifera.

It’s a good bet that consumers are reading and hearing about them already. Which, for the industry, is both a blessing and a curse. “Although there have been significant strides in education for consumers to understand healthy detox,” Bornet says, “there are still many misconceptions in the category. Educating consumers about the health benefits and the healthiest methods of detoxification will help consumers make healthier decisions at the point of purchase.” 



Also read:

French Oak Extract May Help Liver Recover from Alcohol Consumption

Landmark Antioxidant Study Shows Oral Glutathione Is Bioavailable, May Benefit Immune Health

Kyowa Hakko’s Setria Glutathione May Brighten Skin in New Study




  1. Richie JP Jr. et al., “Randomized controlled trial of oral glutathione supplementation on body stores of glutathione,” European Journal of Nutrition, vol. 54, no. 2 (March 2015): 251-263
  2. L Pellegrini et al., “Supplementary management of functional, temporary alcoholic hepatic damage with Robuvit® (French oak wood extract),” Minerva Gastroenterologica e Dietologica, vol. 62, no. 3 (September 2016): 245-252