You may have seen a much-circulated story, allegedly posted on CNN’s website, in which a Cornell University student claims to have lost 37 pounds through a diet regimen consisting of apple cider vinegar and supplements of Garcinia cambogia, a type of tropical fruit.
If it is not immediately obvious to you, this is an internet ad for weight loss supplements, not a CNN story. The woman interviewed in the story doesn’t exist. Apple cider vinegar and Garcinia cambogia do not do what the ad claims they do, and can in fact be harmful when taken as suggested.
Everything about this ad is a lie. It lies about big things that could hurt people’s health and it lies about stupid little things like celebrity diets. It is a lie smothered in lies and served open-faced on a bed of lies. Let’s unpack this.
Claim: The story is from “CNN Nutrition”
Fact: A good way to tell where a story is from is to look at where the story is from. If I were to write, “This story you are reading on www.gov.uk represents official UK policy on phony diet ads,” you could look at the top of your browser and see that you are in fact on qz.com and I am lying. CNN’s URL is cnn.com, not independant-research.com, and that is not how “independent” is spelled.
Claim: “By Suzanne Pischner”
Fact: There is no Suzanne Pischner on LinkedIn or Twitter. Her byline appears only on other fishy-looking weight loss ads, including one purporting to be from TMZ posted under the URL trompe l’oeil tmzf.itness.co. Suzanne, if you are real and reading this, please send a notarized birth certificate to email@example.com.
Claim: “Amanda Haughman, a student at Cornell University, was able to drop 37lbs off her waist in 1 month without ever using a dime of her own money.”
There is no Amanda Haughman in Cornell’s current student or alumni directories. In December, a nearly identical ad for a product called “Premiere Garcinia Cambogia” labeled a completely different woman’s photo as “Cornell student Amanda Haughman.” A lifestyle blogger pointed out that the photo was in fact of a Scottish woman named Seana Forbes, and was taken from a YouTube ad for a fitness app.
An independant-research.com story dated March 13 said Amanda was a Cornell student. In similar ads dated March 14, she went to Harvard or Stanford. A Google image search turns up ads describing the same blond woman with the too-big jean shorts as a student at UCLA, Michigan State University, the University of South Wales, and the National University of Singapore. Amanda Haughman is either a privacy-minded global scholar or—and this is just a theory—not a real person.
Claim: “Since the study, Amanda shared the TrimGenesis Garcinia and apple cider vinegar combination with her close friend, Mark, who had also been struggling with his weight.”
Fact: The image of the man identified as Mark was lifted from a 2015 story in the Daily Star, a UK daily tabloid, about a man named Mark Smithers. Here a pellet of truth is dropped in the rabbit hutch of lies: there is a Mark and he did lose weight. But he did not use this product and is not a close friend of Amanda, who is not real.
Claim: “We sat down with Amanda”
Fact: Amanda can’t sit. She has no lower extremities. She doesn’t exist.
Claim: “I was able to find a radio interview where [Melissa] McCarthy credited her entire weight loss to combining TrimGenesis Garcinia with apple cider vinegar.”
Fact: The photo labeled “2016” is from 2015; the one labeled “2015” is from 2014. No such interview with McCarthy exists. In actual interviews, McCarthy has politely rebuffed repeated requests to talk about if or how she may have lost weight, for the same reason US speaker of the house Paul Ryan has never released his colonoscopy reports—it’s nobody’s business and it’s a kind of weird thing to ask about in the first place.
Claim: “TrimGenesis Garcinia contains the naturally occurring ingredient, hydroxycitcric acid, which boosts weight loss by blocking excess body fat production while increasing resting metabolism by more than 130%.”
This is where TrimGenesis’s claims go from absurd to potentially dangerous. Hydroxycitric acid (not “hydroxycitcric,” as above) is a type of citric acid found in many tropical plants, including Garcinia cambogia. In the world of unregulated supplements, “natural” is an often-abused term that has no bearing on how safe or effective a product is. Arsenic is naturally occurring. Mercury is naturally occurring. Nature makes a lot of stuff. Humans aren’t supposed to eat it all.
A 1998 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no significant difference in weight loss between participants who took Garcinia cambogia and those who took a placebo. A 2011 meta-review in the Journal of Obesity found that while there was some evidence of short-term weight loss in patients using the supplement, those that took it were also twice as likely to have bad gastrointestinal side effects. Another 2013 review of 17 studies deemed Garcinia cambogia safe for human consumption, but concluded that its effect on weight loss was unclear.
The unproven benefits of Garcinia cambogia have not stopped assorted hucksters from pushing it as a weight loss wonder drug; television personality Mehmet Oz called it “a revolutionary fat buster” on a 2012 show.
“I don’t get why you need to say this stuff ‘cause you know it’s not true,” Claire McCaskill, a Democratic senator from Missouri, said at a 2014 Senate hearing on Oz’s false claims (quoted in this actual CNN story).
“I do personally believe in the items that I talk about on my show. I passionately study them,” Oz, a trained surgeon, responded. This is an acceptable defense for an amateur Bigfoot hunter, but not a scientist.
Claim: “TrimGenesis Garcinia with apple cider vinegar has been clinically proven to…”
Fact: Several claims follow; they are all bogus. There have been zero clinical studies on the effects of apple cider vinegar combined with Garcinia cambogia.
The ad never discusses the supposed benefits of drinking the apple cider vinegar, though here “Suzanne Pischner” may be relying readers’ previous familiarity with the subject. A long-time favorite of health food advocates, apple cider vinegar is increasingly popular as a home remedy for maladies including sore throats, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, acne, and jellyfish stings.
“There is ample scientific evidence” that vinegar does in fact help control blood sugar, if taken as one tablespoon diluted in a cup of water at the start of a meal, says Carol Johnston, a professor and associate director at Arizona State University’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion. “The evidence on weight loss is meager but there are hints of this—particularly in the rat model,” she added. “If vinegar impacts body weight, it is very subtle and not what most have in mind when they start a weight loss trial.”
The active ingredient in apple cider vinegar that helps control blood sugar (and possibly weight) is acetic acid, which is found in all vinegar. And while drinking one to two teaspoons in water as recommended by Cornell/Harvard/MSU/National University of Singapore grad Amanda Haughman probably isn’t harmful to most people, it’s worth remembering that vinegar is an acid, and drinking acid straight can be dangerous.
Ultimately, the ad serves apple cider vinegar as a folksy side dish to a weight loss supplement that could have harmful side effects. The US Food and Drug Administration says weight loss supplements, including those purporting to contain Garcinia cambogia, often contain undisclosed ingredients, including active drugs.
The danger of weight-loss related fake news is that—like their political counterparts—they make ridiculous claims that can distract from the fact that they are still lies masquerading as the truth, and could end up hurting someone.
In memory of Amanda Haughman (1995-2017), a victim of the Bowling Green Massacre.