The Lizard Of Oz Takes His Own Medicine
    By Josh Bloom | June 19th 2014 07:30 AM | 19 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Josh

    Director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at The American Council on Science and Health in New York since 2010.

    Former research chemist


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    We all have bad days.

    Sometimes "bad" is a woefully insufficient adjective. Ask Dr. Mehmet Oz (henceforth known as The Lizard of Oz). He had a really bad day this week, courtesy of Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO). 

    She is not someone you want as an enemy. She tricked The Lizard into testifying before  the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

    He thought he was going to be the expert witness talking about bogus diet claims. But it turned out that he was the target of Senator McCaskill's investigation—not the expert witness. Oops.

    It didn't take him long to figure this out, but when you're testifying (and it's televised) in front of a Congressional Committee it is probably not the best time to try and figure things out. So he just used intellectual duck and cover for as long as he could. 

    One can only wonder what must have been going through his mind, but here are a few possibilities:

    "Perhaps this wasn't the best idea I've ever had."
    "Oprah?.... Oh, Oprah?"
    A word that begins with F.

    Senator McCaskill, who has been involved in a variety of health care issues, including veteran's benefits, pre-existing condition limits on health insurance, and healthy diets, had clearly done her homework.

    It was a pretty easy assignment, since much of it involved simply reading Oz's own public statements on various magic diet aids, and watching him squirm as he tried to find some way out of this mess. But there wasn't anything he could do.

    Even Jack Bauer couldn't help Oz escape this.

    McCaskill was not done: “I’m surprised you’re defending this. It’s something that gives people false hope. I don’t see why you need to go there.”

    Never one to be deterred by facts, Oz later said that he was “pleased” with the hearing.

    I guess General Custer was pleased with Little Big Horn too.

    I thought it  might be interesting to take a look at the doctor's favorite supplement—raspberry ketone. It sounds so yummy! And makes you lose weight, too. What can this magical substance be?

    Who could possibly conjure up an image other than a field full of golden-haired young women with butterflies in their hair carefully squeezing the precious nectar from sun-drenched, plump crimson-colored berries?

    This is somewhat inaccurate. First of all, let's call it by its real name: 4-(4-Hydroxyphenyl)butan-2-one. This doesn't sound as yummy. And if you think the ketone is coming from raspberries, I'm sorry to burst your berry. A raspberry contains about 0.008 mg of the stuff (0.00000028 ounces).

    A perusal of the Internet suggests that one capsule contains 250 mg. If I've done the math correctly (a rare, but not impossible event), this means that you would need 31 thousand raspberries to make a pill. Those golden-haired gals better get moving.

    Or, you could condense para-hydroxybenzaldehyde with acetone in the presence of sodium hydroxide and to form (3E)-4-(4-Hydroxyphenyl)-3-buten-2-one, followed by catalytic hydrogenation using palladium on carbon. This will get you there a whole lot faster, and even a whole lot more cheaper. 

    And guess what? The chemical that is the product of synthesis I just mentioned is exactly what is in the supplement bottle. Natural? 

    Even funnier is that the chemical bears more than a passing resemblance to ethyl paraben, a chemical (and a completely harmless one, at that) that consumer and environmental groups have been screaming about for years. Why? Because they call it an endocrine disruptor, which supposedly binds at estrogen receptors, and exerts a variety of effects on sexual development, like making six penises grow out of your forehead.

    Why is this? It's because ethyl paraben is a phenol, just like an estrogen. The Environmental Working Group—and if there is a worse group of scientists around, I haven't met them—says the following: Ethylparaben is in the paraben family of preservatives used by the food, pharmaceutical, and personal care product industries. Parabens mimic estrogen and can act as potential hormone (endocrine) system disruptors.

    Does this mean that raspberry ketone does the same thing? Who knows? But a medicinal chemist would take a look at both chemicals and say "Hmmm. It sure wouldn't surprise me." (I wish I had relative binding data of the two to estrogen receptors, but if it exists, I can't find it.)

    This estrogen nonsense, by the way, is the same knock on the plastic component bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical so "scary" that knuckleheads like Nick Kristof refuse to touch cash register receipts because they contain traces of the chemical. (It has been found to be perfectly safe by numerous agencies, including the FDA.)

    So, I need my beauty sleep (badly), so let's sum up:

    • The Lizard of Oz walks into a Congressional hearing, thinking he's gonna clean up this diet fraud mess.
    • He finds out that he is the fraud mess, courtesy of Sen. McCaskill and colleagues
    • They then proceed to open up a 16 ounce can of Whup-ass on him.
    • This displeases him.
    • He is asked how he can possibly back this junk up.
    • He has no answer, but after looking like he went 15 with Joe Frazier, he comes out and says he is pleased.
    • His mega-selling raspberry ketone does not come from raspberries, rather, synthetic chemicals.
    • People are buying and swallowing huge amounts of the stuff in the false hope that they will lose weight, even though it is not approved for that, or anything else. 
    • If you believe that phenols bind to estrogen receptors and then do something or other, then it is reasonable to predict that raspberry ketone will do this as well.
    • People are wearing hazmat suits and using barbecue tongs to touch cash register receipts, but are swallowing grams of an unapproved drug that does not come from raspberries, and looks a whole lot like something that an environmental group thinks will make penises grow out of your head.
    It's times like this when I'm sure glad I became a scientist.


    Michael Martinez
    I'm curious, though (and I realize a LOT of people are upset with him because of these alternative therapies that he champions, not the scammy parasitical ads).  Since he is a practicing heart surgeon who TEACHES (or has taught) other heart surgeons, would you feel comfortable with him performing open heart surgery on you?
    What I think is more important in all this is whether the public (and the scientific community) loses complete faith in a physician who "goes celebrity" or if the mistrust can be compartmentalized.

    I think, however, that Senator McCaskill has unreasonable expectations about the advertising.  If Dr. Oz stops exposing himself to this kind of exploitation it will continue without him.  The people who set up these companies are not threatened by a lack of exploitable celebrity names.  It is a completely fluid process engendered by the Internet itself, through the false sense of anonymity that it conveys and through the rapidly evolving technological gateways that make it so easy to create these scams.

    When a company like Google can look the other way for years and get away with paying only a $500 million fine for carrying scammy advertising (and that would only slightly depress one quarterly revenue statement for them), the system proves it can absorb what seem like severe consequences for widespread irresponsible activity without much turbulence.  About the only possible deterrence that might work would be to hold corporate executives responsible to the point where they face jail time -- and I think there would be a lot of constitutional challenges to such legislation.
    Josh Bloom
    I have a friend at Columbia Presb. He tells me that Oz shows up once in awhile, probably to maintain his privileges. I am almost sure that he no longer operates (or teaches). Will find out.
     As for credibility issue, what is truly pathetic is that he ever had any in the first place. And still does.  It all seems rather carefully orchestrated. He becomes an Oprah-bot. Good looking. Female audience. Uses his creds as a big time cardiac surgeon (as if they know anything about nutrition to begin with), and the next thing you know he's a superstar. Which gives him "license" to sell supplements, and make a fortune.  There's a great expression from Wall Street: "Happiness can't buy you money."

     All part of the Oprah formula. And it works. 

    I disagree with your google analogy. Whatever they do or do not do, they DON'T sell unapproved drugs, disguised as supplements, which are useless, harmful or both. People have died from taking this crap. 

    I think McCaskill was dead on.

    Josh Bloom
    Michael Martinez
    According to the New Yorker he still operates every Thursday (this is not the most flattering article about him, though).
    As for Google, they knew they were carrying illegal advertising (for illegal drugs) and continued to carry it anyway.  That is why they eventually paid a $500 million fine.  In my book, that is worse than anything Dr. Oz could have done because Google put their own profits ahead of public safety.

    Dr. Oz is not the only practicing doctor to believe in and try alternative therapies.  But the problem here doesn't lie with the individual doctors who step beyond the science to try something else.  The problem lies with how difficult it is for people deal with health care.

    Dr. Oz says his message is hope and it is directed at people who are looking for hope.  Senator McCaskill's criticisms were based on incomplete research.   For example, she was only aware of one green coffee extract study that has been widely ridiculed.  Dr. Oz pointed out there have been other studies.  You can find at least some of them by searching Google Scholar (and many more studies dealing with other potential benefits of green coffee beans).

    Even though the science doesn't back up the extraordinary claims Dr. Oz has made, neither does it support the Senator's statement that there is only one study on green coffee beans.  I didn't check the other topics but when someone else pointed out to me that Dr. Oz supports homeopathy (which he does -- I watched the video myself to confirm that), I couldn't help but notice that he points out the lack of scientific support for it.  He did not dwell on the placebo effect, which apparently some recent research suggests may be significant (to the point that the researchers recommended studying the process of homeopathy to see what could be used to enlighten current medical practices).

    Dr. Oz has put himself out there and he's going to continue to draw fire. I think he knows that.  But not everything written about him on the Internet is true and that is clouding the issue.
    Personally, I don't think he is a bad guy, I think he was convinced that he was just in the notification business and that appearances are not endorsements. I bet he is rattled that he has this reputation and will dial it back.

    Chopra, Weil and the other Four Horsemen of the Alternative, yeah, they are nonsense peddlers.
    Josh Bloom
    I know a few people that know him, and they seem to agree that he is a nice guy. So what? He made a fortune selling doodie. His personality does not concern me one way or another.
    Josh Bloom
    Yes, yes, Mussolini made the trains run on time and all that, I am not rationalizing his arsenic in juice hysteria, I am just saying that unlike those other guys, I think he at least means well.
    A bigger question is why is McCaskill going after him like this. Could be the over $146,000 contribution from big pharma and the $37,000 contribution from Monsanto.

    McCaskill's entire re-election campaign costs less than Dr. Oz makes in one year. So if your 'follow the money' logic is true, you should be going after Dr. Bonner's magic soap, Joe Mercola, and the people making far more money selling nonsense than McCaskill will ever see.

    You may be lucky enough to have never been ill. If you had been, you'd better hope Big Pharma is around. Without American drug companies, drug development worldwide is dead.
    Josh Bloom
    Josh Bloom
    Michael Martinez
    It's my understanding that Dr. Oz doesn't actually sell these products.  One could easily get the impression from your article that he does.  His site advises people not to treat raspberry ketones as a miracle pill.  So I suppose the real problem here is that he encourages people to experiment with what appear to be safe compounds, combining those experiments with good dietary choices and physical activity.
    I suppose he makes money from the show and he has to talk about something.  Perhaps the placebo effect will recoup him some love in the long run.

    Meanwhile, debunkery should rely less on ridicule and more on providing the whole story.  It is more credible that way.
    Josh Bloom
    This is the same kid of double talk that is the foundation of the entire supplements industry. 

    On the same label, you will see "This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease."   AND not-quite-claims, such as "supports prostate health," which is clearly intended to convince people that whatever is in the bottle will help with their prostate problems.  These statements are almost entirely contradictory, yet this is the norm in the nutty universe of the supplements world.

     Regarding ridicule, some things are so ridiculous that ridicule is the only way I can even address them (as well as using humor). You may think that this is not as academically rigorous as calmly going through issues point by point, but what I do is way more fun. We all have different styles. If you are looking for a non-wiseass, there are plenty of them on this site. And sometimes from me.  I give serious topics serious commentary. 

      For what it's worth, I always enjoy your comments, and I hope you continue to send them in.  

    Josh Bloom
    Michael Martinez
    I agree that Dr. Oz needs to tone it down because he is feeding the machine, but it's not a machine he made.  These scammers will use anything, including credible scientific statements, to sell their junk to gullible (or hopeful) consumers.  Without Dr. Oz there would be someone else.  There's always a bigger fish, as Qui-Gon Jinn says.
    As for ridicule, in years past I wrote a lot of ridicule in attempts to debunk nonsense.  I found it only drove people away and sometimes encouraged the choir to sing a little louder.  I don't believe in it as a mind-changing strategy.  I see a lot of ridicule on the Web these days.  It's becoming normal and I tend to push back at it.
    Josh Bloom
    Orin Hatch (with the help of the rest of Congress) made the machine in his 1994 law that artificially separated Rx drugs from unapproved drugs (supplements). The function of the machine was strictly financial—to support Utah's supplement industry. It worked very well.
     It was also anti-scientific at its core, based upon a few myths. I firmly believe that this was a huge factor in the current "organic religion." They are based on similar principles.

     Except in rare cases, it is impossible to change people's minds. We have become too polarized and too stupid. I have written a number of pieces on the remarkable transformation in the treatments and outcomes of AIDS, mentioning (and rightly so) that the pharmaceutical made a huge contribution to this. Of course I get called a shill for the industry (even though I was laid off by the industry). When I point this out they either don't believe me of call me something else.

    When I wrote about the 22 years of pharma research that finally came up with a cure for hepatitis C--same thing. I'll still write about these things, but I don't expect to change many minds. So, at least I'll have some fun and write stuff to piss a few people off. The ones that know I'm right will laugh. The others will get angry, and hopefully send in stupid and/or personal attacks, which I will then use to rip them to shreds. 

     I don't think that's so awful. 
    Josh Bloom
    The point for me is that it is not Oz but the machine that needs repair.
    Bloom did a good job pointing out how we got to this place and what needs fixing in one of his comments about how we managed to regulate supplements differently than drugs.

    Josh Bloom
    Bloom thanks you.
    Josh Bloom
    Michael Martinez
    Yes, I apparently have been shilling for both sides in some online debates.  I agree that changing minds is not easy, but in the Internet marketing field many of the principles that I advocate are usually adopted after about 2-3 years if I deliver the message consistently enough.  I call this a "saturation effect" because you have to wait for ideas to cross boundaries at a very slow viral pace.  If you stop pumping information into the discussion it dries up.  If you continue to deliver the message the saturation spreads.  Eventually other people pick up the message and begin spreading it so the saturation rate increases.

    Basic propaganda theory was developed by the Nazis but the Internet has proven to be a living laboratory that demonstrates how effective it is.  I figure if the bad guys can do it then so can the good guys.

    Regarding your Oz article, 103 days ago (I looked it up in my Twitter feed!) Oz, trying to be cool with his audience, said on his show, "organic chemistry is painful". A doctor saying this on national TV?Organic chemistry alone--- or science for that matter----can't save the species, but it is an inspiring collective work, a creative and intellectual masterpiece, nonetheless. 

    Painful? That's an obscenity.
    Josh Bloom
    But perhaps more obscene are the various mechanisms at play that put this schmuck in a position where he can whore this garbage in the first place.  TV + Oprah + good looks + stupid audience + celebrity worship + a scientifically ignorant country (anti-scientific, really) + marketing + conspiracy theory idiots + scummy politicians =  $$$$$$$$.

     H.L. Mencken is up there chuckling 

    Josh Bloom
    Michael Martinez
    Well, Dr. Oz seems to be thoroughly spanked so now we should move on to figuring out how to stop the medical industry from wasting $210 billion a year on needless tests and prescriptions (just don't take my pills away from me when I'm feeling bad).

    We should also look into the estimates that doctors kill 200,000 Americans a year with science-based medicinal practices.  Instead of gun control maybe we should be debating medical controversy control because somehow all the hoopla over Dr. Oz and his alternative therapies just doesn't seem worth the effort to me.

    I can't find any Websites I would trust that talk about deaths due to alternative therapies.  I know there have been news stories about people starving their children, or not treating serious illnesses in their children, because they didn't believe in doctors.  Have there been any serious studies?

    And I guess we should concede that all these things need to be categorized.  Alternative weight loss therapies (like "miracle" pills) versus science-based weight loss therapies: who is killing more people?  How is that determined?

    My point in all this is that I think people are taking this too far.  When you rack up all the sins of the medical industry (or any other industry) and weigh them against the misdeeds of one licensed professional like Mehmet Oz, the criticisms seem very misplaced.

    I am pretty sure that more people have died because of Bernard Madoff, the US Veterans' Administration, and Enron than because of Dr. Oz's TV show -- but that is hard to quantify.