In honor of National Employee Health Month, Avago is holding a 5K next Wednesday. I signed up and yesterday as I was picking up my bib, I noticed little red packages of something called FRS on the counter. I asked about it, and the wellness center director said that she was sent the sample packets as a member of a professional network but wasn’t familiar with the product herself. I took one, because the subtitle was “Healthy Energy” and the package said it was a dietary supplement.
Being the sometimes “detail-oriented” person that I am, I went over the claims it made, the ingredient list, and was sceptical. The first ingredient is sugar, and it contains caffeine. Both of those could provide energy some coffee with the same amount sugar could too. Not impressed. The claim the packaging makes is the following:
“FRS is fueled by a patented formula containing quercetin, a powerful antioxidant found in fruits and vegetables that helps unlock your body’s natural energy. With all that you are juggling between family, friends and trying to find a little more time for yourself – couldn’t you use more energy? Feel the difference.”
Now, to me, words like “powerful” and “natural energy” scream “MARKETING WROTE THIS!”. That may or may not matter – but in this case, those words are relevant to whether this stuff is worth buying. And the blurb isn’t exactly explicit about how this is meant to work. So, I went to the website and found the following list of claims backed up by scientific papers:
As well as the statement “Quercetin works by naturally triggering the body’s ability to produce more real energy.”
I am going to dig up those papers and read them to see how well this pans out. The reason I want to read the papers, not just the abstracts that FRS provides, is that I know from experience that sometimes there’s something in the paper that is crucial to what YOU want to know (in this case – if I take this stuff, will I run faster and/or have more energy throughout the day?) that wasn’t in the abstract.
The FRS website also mentions that two PhDs at Harvard formulated this stuff. It’s obviously supposed to make me go, “Wow! Two PhDs! They are so much smarter than me, this stuff must be AWESOME!” Did I mention Lance Armstrong is doing their marketing? Same effect. (Reality check: all this research is new – in the past five years or so. Armstrong was winning Tour de Frances without it.)
Well, when you have a PhD yourself, and hence know a lot of other people that have PhDs, it’s just not that convincing that something MUST be good if someone with a PhD did it. Boy, do I wish that was true! People with PhDs are just that: people. The only thing it’s fair to assume of someone with a PhD is that they know how to do research in their field. Mine is in engineering – don’t ask me about anthropology research. I am as unqualified as you likely are to comment on that. But even with that said, the people part of being people with PhDs matters. When you’re turning up results a company that’s paying for your research (i. e. salary) won’t like, it’s stressful. You don’t want to tell the hand that feeds you that “Sorry, this is just not going to work/your product doesn’t do anything/bad news in general.” That’s probably why it’s been shown that there is a link between “good” findings and funding from whoever wants the “good” news. We also sometimes get hung up on liking a particular idea even when it’s just not true. You get attached to your research. You like your research, that’s why you do it. It’s your baby. It’s hard to accept that it’s wrong. I know from experience. It doesn’t help that usually, you’ve come out in public with your idea and tried to back it up with evidence by the time you find out you’re wrong. Nothing like putting yourself out there and trying to convince people you’re right and then realize you were just… wrong. Oops. Also, nothing really stops us from taking money to say a product is great any more than being an MD ensures you would never appear on a commercial in support of a bad product. Just something to keep in mind.
That’s why new research topics are always a little uncertain. There hasn’t been enough research – and enough researchers checking other people’s work – to solidly say “this is how it works, guys” the way you can with something that’s been researched for the last 20, 50, or 200 years. (Pretty sure we won’t discover Newton was wrong on the macro scale.) So before I take a few paper abstracts as proof of that FRS would improve my personal athletic performance and give me access to energy I wouldn’t have otherwise, without it, I’m going to get dirty with reading the papers to see how conclusive the evidence really is and whether it applies to me. (Even though I’m not technically qualified in this field, I do know how you write an introduction to the paper – you find a problem in someone else’s work yours addresses. So, the introduction sections will tell me what someone in that field might critique about a previous paper.) As I read them, I’ll make a post on each one.