Detox kits review and compare

Been burning the candle at both ends?
 
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  • Updated:5 Oct 2005
 

01 .Introduction

Detox-kits

In brief

  • There’s no sound evidence that we need to ‘detox’, or that following a detox program will increase the elimination of toxins from your body. See Do we really need to detox? for details.
  • Some detox kits have diet plans that are unnecessarily restrictive, and give dietary advice with poor or no rationale. See The diets for more.
  • Detox supplements provide little or no known benefit over a healthy diet. We suggest you save your money. See The supplements for more.
  • A week or two on a detox program won’t absolve you from a year of unhealthy eating, smoking or drinking too much alcohol.

Please note: this information was current as of October 2005 but is still a useful guide today.


'Detox’ or ‘liver cleansing’ diets have been around for years. Put simply, their intended effect is to purge the body of a supposed build-up of toxins, in order to regain good health.

Some of these diets require enormous dedication, but these days it’s claimed you need only purchase a detox kit from the shelves of your local healthfood store, chemist or supermarket, swallow some supplements and follow their dietary guidelines, and in most cases within three weeks you’re ‘cleansed’.

Do detox kits work?

There’s no shortage of glowing testimonials from people who’ve used detox kits, claiming to feel cleansed, energised and healthier. But when we went searching, evidence-based research to support the testimonials was thin on the ground.

  • First we bought all the detox kits we could find (see Detox kits reviewed ) and asked the manufacturers to supply evidence for the efficacy of their products, but none volunteered any, most citing commercial confidentiality as a reason.
  • Failing this, we went to other sources — scientific literature and experts in dietetics, gastroenterology, pharmacology and toxicology for the detox lowdown.
 
 

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02.Detox kits reviewed

 

The seven detox kits we reviewed were:

  • A. VOGEL Cleansing Program (15 days) - $57
  • BLACKMORES Detox Program (10 days) - $55
  • BRAUER Elimitona Slim & Detox Programme (20 days) - $27
  • HERRON ActiCleanse Detox Program (14 days) - $57
  • HILDE HEMMES’ HERBALS Detox Programs (six or 10 days) - $50
  • NATURE’S OWN Rapid Cleanse Detox Plan (10 days) - $60
  • QUICK CLEANSE Detox Program (15 days) - $65

(Listed in alphabetical order; prices are an average of the retail prices we saw in stores in March 2005)

The kits' contents varied, but essentially they all comprise of:

  • Dietary guidelines and/or a form of diet plan.
  • Supplements, in tonic and/or tablet/capsule and/or powder form.


Wallet watch

Based on the recommendations in some of the kits, it seems a detox kit can be a useful marketing tool for some of a brand’s other products. For example:

  • the BLACKMORES kit suggests you consider taking extra vitamins and minerals when undergoing your detox, and naturally recommends its own brand.
  • Totally Natural Products’ QUICK CLEANSE kit tells you, “It’s important to nourish your blood cells with nutrients immediately after completing the program”, and that it sells the supplements you need.
  • The meal suggestions in A. VOGEL’s detox program are based on its own-brand foods.
  • Most kits also recommend that you detox ‘regularly’ — BRAUER even goes so far as to suggest following its 10-day ‘maintenance’ plan every six weeks.

Detox kit manufacturers certainly don’t waste the opportunity to let you know about other products they sell. There’s clearly the potential for you to spend more money on the programs than just the cost of the kit.

03.Do we really need to detox?

 

Why detox?

Many of the kits (see Detox kits reviewed) refer to the large number of toxins — from cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes and pesticides to caffeine, alcohol and medicinal drugs — that our bodies are exposed to in today’s world (see What’s a toxin? below, for more). They talk of how toxins accumulate in the body, and of the extra burden this places on the body’s natural detoxification mechanisms. And they point the finger at this toxic overload as being behind a host of ills including constipation, bloating, flatulence, poor digestion, heartburn, diarrhoea, lack of energy and fatigue.

The kits claim that their detox products “stimulate your body’s natural detoxifying functions”, “improve the functioning of your digestive system”, “work like an intestinal broom”, “flush away potentially harmful toxins from your system” and generally give your body a “spring clean” to provide relief from these problems, improve your general health and wellbeing and leave you feeling revitalised.

So do we really need to detox?

The short answer is ‘no’. As many of the kits themselves point out, our bodies are well-equipped with self-cleansing mechanisms, and detoxification occurs on a continual basis in the body — the lungs, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract, skin and immune system all play a part in effectively removing or eliminating toxins.

Symptoms like bloating and fatigue may be an indication of an unhealthy lifestyle, or a lack of vital nutrients because of poor eating habits — not of toxic build-up. For example, constipation, bloating and flatulence can all result from a lack of fibre.

And claims that physical side effects of the detox programs like coated tongue, bad breath, fatigue and various aches and pains are evidence that your body is getting rid of toxins just aren’t sustainable. HILDE HEMMES’ HERBALS, for example, claims that body odour as a side effect of its program “is a good sign as it is the result of toxic elimination”. In fact this and nail-polish-remover-smelling breath are both symptoms of your body burning fat while you’re on a low-carbohydrate diet (as is recommended by HILDA HEMMES in particular). You can lose a similar amount of body fat by following any calorie-restricted diet, but a more balanced, less extreme one won’t have these side effects.

The bottom line is that no studies have shown that a detox regimen increases the elimination of toxins.

CHOICE's Verdict

  • We can all benefit from improving our diet and lifestyle — eating more fruit, vegies and whole grains and less fat, cutting back on junk foods, and only having caffeine and alcohol in moderation.
  • If ‘detoxing’ gets people thinking about their lifestyle, and springboards them into making positive long-term changes, OK. But the detox fad may encourage the idea that you can pollute your body as much as you like all year and then undo the damage in days — a theory that’s very in tune with today’s quick-fix mentality, but which unfortunately doesn’t work.
  • You’re better off saving your money and making small but sustainable diet and lifestyle changes that will benefit your health in the long term.  

What’s a toxin?

Dictionaries define a toxin as a poison produced by an organism, which causes disease. But detox kits cast the net wider to encompass any substance with the potential to harm your body. When the kits mention toxins, they’re mainly referring to those they categorise as environmental — alcohol, caffeine, medicinal and recreational drugs, cigarette smoke, heavy metals, exhaust fumes, pollution, ‘chemicals’, preservatives and pesticides, to name a few — which we’re exposed to in the air and through our diets. A couple of kits also mention free radicals — internal chemical by-products that can damage our body’s cells if more are produced than are neutralised by the body’s antioxidants.

04.The diets and supplements

 

Most of the kits we looked at acknowledge that poor diet contributes to the kind of health problems they say are symptoms of a toxic overload, and they all include some kind of dietary guidelines or meal plan for you to follow as part of the detox program. Given the importance of diet for good health, we asked a panel of dietitians to review and comment on the quality of information provided.

Good points

Our experts were positive about aspects of some kits’ diet plans:

  • Several acknowledge the need for making long-term lifestyle changes, or advise you to maintain sensible eating through the year.
  • Some kits provide meal plans, recipes and/or give practical information and advice for shopping or eating out, which can be helpful.
  • The majority give at least some healthy lifestyle recommendations, such as increasing activity, ensuring you drink enough water, and improving your diet (by eating more fruit and veg, for example).
  • Probably the most logical piece of advice given is to avoid what the kits define as ‘toxins’ in the first place — so for these programs alcohol, cigarettes and coffee are out –– as well as saturated and trans fats, soft drinks and refined sugary foods.

Result

Following these recommendations on their own is likely to result in:

  • clearer skin (the result of drinking more water)
  • less bloating and lethargy (dietary restrictions are likely to result in you eating less)
  • fewer headaches (reduced alcohol and caffeine) and
  • generally feeling healthier.

Bad points

But the kits’ diet plans also had problems and/or limitations:

  • Most of the programs recommend a restriction of key food groups (like red meat and dairy) but give no clear justification for this. Restricting these foods could mean there aren’t enough of certain nutrients in the diet (particularly iron and calcium and possibly zinc and B vitamins) if the foods aren’t replaced with suitable alternatives.
  • None of the programs gives guidance on appropriate portion sizes.
  • Some provide recommendations not supported by scientific evidence, or with no logical rationale, and/or give conflicting advice. 

Here are some examples:

    • Don’t mix fruit and vegetables within the same meal.
      (A. VOGEL)
    • Avoid table salt (but sea salt or herb salt are OK).
      (BLACKMORES and HERRON)
    • Try to avoid eating after 8 pm.
      (BRAUER)
    • Avoid citrus fruits (except lemons).
      (HERRON and QUICK CLEANSE)
    • It’s best to eat all raw and steamed vegetables later in the day.
      (QUICK CLEANSE)
    • Avoid dairy products (but cheese and yogurt are suggested lunch options).
      (BRAUER)
    • A vegetarian diet is recommended, but a small amount of fresh fish and poultry is preferable to red meat. Avoid pork.
      (A. VOGEL)

Result

  • When trying to follow a diet plan, recommendations like these can be restrictive and some are certainly confusing.

Most of the diet plans were considered unlikely to cause any significant health problems if followed for the recommended timeframe. But HILDE HEMMES’ HERBALS Detox Program is another story altogether. It’s essentially a fast, where nothing but juice and some supplements (including a laxative and a diuretic) are consumed over six or 10 days. It was highlighted by our experts as being potentially dangerous for many people if followed for more than a couple of days.

The supplements

The premise of the supplements is that to properly stimulate the detoxification process and eliminate waste from your body you need to give nature ‘a helping hand’. Most of the kits contain a suite of supplements, the active ingredients (and the claimed effects) of which can broadly be classified as:

  • Liver tonics (commonly milk thistle, barberry, dandelion or schizandra). These herbs have a long history of traditional use in detoxifying and protecting the liver and aiding normal liver function, but clinical evidence to support their use is limited and inconclusive.
  • Digestive aids (such as ginger, globe artichoke and peppermint) for alleviating symptoms of indigestion.
  • Laxatives (for example, fennel, psyllium and senna) and diuretics (such as birch, dandelion, golden rod and spiny restharrow), to increase bowel movements and urine elimination.

While there’s evidence for the intended effects of some of the laxatives and diuretics, the experts we spoke to thought the suite of supplements included in the kits has little or no known benefit that wouldn’t be acheived simply by following a healthy eating program. A high-fibre diet with plenty of water, for example, can have the same effect as taking laxatives and diuretics (with other nutritional benefits as a bonus).

CAUTION: Bear in mind that herbal preparations, like other drugs, can modify chemical processes in the body and interact with other medications, so always speak to your doctor before taking them. The kits all warn detoxers to stop using them or seek medical advice if they experience persistent side effects such as abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, joint pain, headaches, flu-like symptoms, stomach cramps or diarrhoea.

05.Detox case studies

 

We wanted to see what impact detoxing would have on people’s daily lives, so we recruited three volunteers for the task.

What they did

Liz, Zac and Megan were each given one of the detox kits on review to try out. Throughout the detox, they kept a diary recording their experiences. Some common themes ran throughout.

What they found

  • Both Zac and Liz struggled at the beginning, often feeling tired and lacking in energy. Zac had difficulty concentrating at work, and on several occasions had to go to bed earlier than normal.
  • Megan commented on the expense of buying organic food (as recommended by her kit), and the need to be more organised than usual so that she had plenty of the ‘allowed’ foods at home and work.
  • And not surprisingly (considering the laxative effect of the fibre supplements the kits contain), they all experienced minor stomach troubles early on in the program — something the kits do warn can happen.
  • Probably the biggest difficulty they faced was trying to fit the specific requirements of the detox program into their daily lives — remembering to take pills before, during and after meals, and particularly choosing suitable foods when out to dinner or at a barbecue with friends. For Liz, working in the catering industry and surrounded by food all day, commitment to her detox program was a real challenge.

The result

On completion they all felt the detox they’d tried had had some benefits — Zac felt healthier, and Liz felt she had more energy. But all three agreed that they weren’t sure what to put the improvements down to. As Megan said, “It feels like my body is functioning better, but it’s hard to tell if that’s due to supplements or a better diet, restricting unhealthy foods.”

So did detoxing have a lasting impact? We checked back with our detoxers two months later, and they each noted that they now try to drink more water and eat more fruit, vegies and healthier food in general. Certainly a positive outcome, but what they learnt was no different from the advice given in every sensible diet plan (or CHOICE food article, come to that). Do we really have to spend $50+ and put ourselves through a probably unnecessary detox program before we take any notice?