Do diet detox products work?

Can herbal pills and fruit-based liquids really remove toxins, or is it all just marketing spin?
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02.What is in the box

Breaking down the ingredients

You'll have heard the claims before – specially designed with this, professionally formulated from that. There are “rare combinations”, “unique blends” and even “powerful super foods”, all claimed to be the next big thing. But what’s really in the box? Of the powders, potions and pills we looked at, most contain a combination of fruit and vegetable extracts, liver tonics, laxatives and traditional weight loss aids. And a number of the ingredients that popped up more than once were flagged by dietitians as being of particular interest.


Known for its ability to stimulate your central nervous system, caffeine is present in two of these products, most likely because of its ability to speed up your metabolism. It’s generally accepted that the caffeine in two to four cups of coffee each day is harmless, however too much caffeine can make you anxious and may cause headaches or abnormal heart rhythms. While the 4321 Slim Evolution gives a precise measure for the amount of caffeine in each dose on its label, its sister product, the 4321 10 Day Body Boot Camp, does not. It’s interesting to note that while some products give you added caffeine, others require it to be eliminated for the duration of the detox, which can cause headaches for those who regularly consume coffee. Back to top.

Green tea

The two 4321 products also contain green tea, considered to have antioxidant properties and the ability to improve mental alertness (most likely because of its caffeine content) and often used as a weight loss aid. But despite this, there is little reliable data to determine whether this age-old beverage will help to cleanse or cut the kilos. Back to top.

Bitter orange

Also said to speed up metabolism is bitter orange, a key ingredient in the Blackmores Kickstart Detox. Experts say there’s not enough evidence to support the use of this ingredient for health purposes, particularly given reports of its links to fainting, heart attack and stroke. Bitter orange should be avoided by people with high blood pressure and should not be taken in conjunction with caffeine, yet the Kickstart Detox’s packaging and the public summary of the product in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) fail to contain such warnings. Back to top.

Super berries

Berries such as acai, goji and cranberries also appear in a number of products. Cranberries have known antioxidant properties and can help prevent urinary tract infections, although the evidence is not definitive and caution should be exercised by those who take blood-thinning drugs, such as warfarin and aspirin, in taking a product that contains cranberries. Goji berries should also be avoided by people on warfarin. There is no definitive scientific evidence to support the claims that acai berries, native to Central and South America and promoted widely as a “superfood”, promote weight loss. Back to top.


Di Prima says while there’s nothing dangerous about most of these ingredients, the whole food is always going to be better than a single extract. As an example, beta-carotene, found in both of the 48-hour detoxes, appears to be associated with an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers when taken as a supplement, but eating a lot of beta carotene-containing fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk. Back to top.

Ingredients to encourage bowel movement

The inclusion of psyllium in the Totally Natural Quick Cleanse and Skinny Mini is designed to promote regular bowel movements. Although not harmful in itself, psyllium should not be taken with the common painkiller aspirin and people with diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure should be especially cautious – although the product fails to provide this warning on its packaging. Rhubarb and senna are also used in some of the products to promote regular bowel movements. However, if you eat a sufficient amount of high-fibre foods, such as oats, grains and fruits, this should not be an issue for you. Back to top.


Silybin, the biologically active element of milk thistle, appears in the Bioglan Intense Cleanse and the Totally Natural Quick Cleanse. Historically thought to protect and improve liver function, laboratory studies suggest this could be correct, although clinical trials have not been able to link the two. Found naturally in meat and fish, taurine also appears in these two products. Back to top.


Taurine is thought to contain antioxidants and may improve liver function in patients with existing liver disease (hepatitis), however there’s no evidence to support the idea that taurine can improve the function of a healthy liver. The QuickTrim Fast Cleanse (endorsed by Kim and Khloe Kardashian) claims you’ll slim down and lose your bloat in just 48 hours – although the fructose and soybean fibre may have exactly the opposite effect on some people, according to McGrice. Back to top.


Chitosan, a dietary fibre derived from the shell of crustaceans, is popular in weight loss products for its ability to bind small amounts of fat into waste. As an ingredient in the 4321 10 Day Body Boot Camp, chitosan appeals to those looking to shed excess kilos, although this is not all it is capable of shedding. Chitosan does not distinguish between different types of fat, which means good fats, such as omega-3s, can also be lost in the process. More importantly, good-quality studies suggest the effect of chitosan on body weight is minimal. The US Food and Drug Administration warns directly against the use of chitosan, which it says may cause problems for those allergic to shellfish. McGrice says while chitosan may play a role in weight loss, “there are better things that can be done to improve metabolism, such as exercise”. Back to top.

The expert view

Of the products we looked at, the majority came with the recommendation that the detox be undertaken in conjunction with a healthy eating plan. Di Prima says although the ingredients may not always have a scientific benefit, the upside of detox products is the way they encourage consumers to embark on new health regimes. “[On the detox], people will exercise more, eat better, cut out bad foods and lose weight. They attribute this to the tablet, but it is more likely actually the change to lifestyle that has made the difference.”

The worst of the worst

Lemon and sugar is perfect for pancakes, but what about detoxing? Dubbed an extreme and terrible dieting option by our dietitians due to its recommendation you eliminate all food for seven days, the Pure Natural lemon detox cost us $89.95 (plus the cost of a few lemons) at an inner city Sydney pharmacy. We decided to compare how much people are paying for this product, with the true cost of its ingredients, which likely have no real health benefits whatsoever. To buy similar ingredients from a supermarket – one litre of golden syrup, a packet of cayenne pepper, a 50 pack of senna laxative tablets and jar of sea salt – cost us less than $25 (lemons not included).


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