I’ve never been overly well off and I’m cool with that. Growing up in a working class family I learned a lot of tips and tricks for shopping on the high street that would help save money.
Since becoming an active member of the skeptic community I’ve come to realise that these same tips and tricks can also be a good way to avoid pseudo-science and nonsense selling tactics too.
There is a certain pressure on us all to keep up with our friends and colleagues by following certain trends and by living in certain ways. Especially when it comes to our health. Buying certain products and following certain fads seems to almost be expected of us by our peers, but sometimes this can be counter-productive and even harmful.
Below I have summarised 5 ways in which we are sold expensive lies on the high street and how to avoid being tricked out of our money.
1 – off the shelf medication
Own-brand painkillers are equally as good as their fancily branded counterparts. You can buy a pack of 16 500mg Paracetamol pills for 25p from Superdrug or Tesco. Sainsbury’s do a pack for 32p. You can hold the packs next to their branded counterparts and you will see that they have the exact same ingredients – you’re literally paying for the fancy packaging.
Also, ladies: don’t be fooled into buying those tablets marketed as relief for period pain. Check out the ingredients on the packaging and you’ll realise you can save money by buying store-brand pain relief pills for a fraction of the price. You can then spend the money you saved on chocolate. True story.
2 Organic food
When I talk about organic food I am speaking of food which is bought from the high street and not food grown at home. If you grow your own veggies I think that’s cool! However, walk into any supermarket and you’ll find organic produce marketed to you as the luxurious version of standard meat and veg.
You can end up paying more than 100% more for organic produce and there’s really no justification for doing so.
Many people cite the use of pesticides as the reason they choose organic food over non-organic food, but according to evolutionary biologist, Christie Wilcox “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.” Plus, studies have shown that there is really no nutritional benefit to eating organic meat and produce, or to drinking organic milk.
The idea of eating genetically modified food (GMOs) scares some people but, in reality, they’re perfectly safe and, actually, better for the environment than their organic counterparts. If you eat organic food you’re making the world a worse place for poor people in other countries.
Also: when buying produce don’t be so quick to grab the pre-packaged veggies and fruit. The loose versions of these can often be cheaper when you weigh them out – even in the same quantities as the pre-packaged stuff. It’s also beneficial to ask yourself if you really need a bag of a zillion mini-red onions when one loose onion might suffice. Doing this has reduced our food budget and the amount of food waste at home. Kerching!
3 Vitamins and Supplement pills
I used to take a multivitamin every morning until I discovered that we don’t need them because we should be getting all of the nutrients we need from the food that we eat. But even if you have a deficiency a vitamin pill probably wouldn’t be the best way to solve that issue and you should speak to your GP.
The National Health Service website actually states that ‘many people choose to take supplements, but taking too much or taking them for too long could be harmful.’
Alternet reports that vitamins can be marketed in a way that doesn’t make the health risk obvious. They also report that in the US a ‘Trader Joe’s Women’s Once Daily Multivitamin & Mineral supplement contains 200 percent of the recommended amount of Vitamin C, 286 percent of the recommended dosage of selenium, and over 400 percent of what you need in the way of Vitamin B12’ which is not good news, folks. I think that’s actually quite scary!
Maybe think twice before buying those expensive bottles of tablets?
4 Superfoods and Clean Eating
Darling. Everyone is doing the Clean Eating thing, didn’t you know? The only problem is that dieticians and doctors think it isn’t as useful as many people make out. There are some elements of the clean eating movement that are just good old fashioned common sense- like eating more veggies -and then there are elements that are fictional as fuck, like the idea that you should cut gluten out of your diet even if you’re not allergic to it because it’s “toxic”.
There is a great piece over at theconversation.com that explores this in more detail by looking at the inaccurate claims made by people in the Clean Eating movement. Don’t be ashamed of what’s in your basket because it’s probably not as bad as you think.
“I despair of the term ‘clean eating’…it necessarily implies that any other form of eating – and consequently the eater of it – is dirty or impure and thus bad.” Nigella Lawson
As for superfoods… we’ve all heard that chia seeds and coconut can work miracles for our bodies because of the magical nutrients they have in them, and it’s tempting to run out and buy the newest (and never cheap) supplements that contain these super ingredients from Holland and Barretts. But here’s a general rule of thumb that has seen me well through my life so far:
If it’s described as a miracle it’s not going to work because magic isn’t real.
“Whether it’s coconut oil, chia seeds or apple cider vinegar,” Duane Mellor, an assistant professor in dietetics at the University of Nottingham told The Guardian, “there is no scientific evidence to suggest that if you top up your diet with any ‘miracle’ or special food that you’ll get any of the promised effects.”
That should be an open and shut case, but it isn’t. Look around the high street and you’ll see Superfoods everywhere but popularity doesn’t support the accuracy of the claims that surround them.
Remember: fad diets are bad diets.
5 Alternative Medicines & Treatments
I’ve been a part of many workplace teams where everyone else was from a middle-class background. At first, it was a culture shock to see just how many of my colleagues relied on alternative medicinal practices like chiropractic, homeopathy and reiki but it soon became common to find any skepticism of these techniques being sneered at because personal experience apparently outweighs clinical trials and scientific research.
Let me just do a quick run-through of all of the bogus health fads people often use that have little or no benefit. Some of which can actually be dangerous:
Homeopathic medicines: there are no active ingredients in these diluted solutions and water does not have memory. Don’t bother. Learn more here.
Chiropractic: manipulation of your spine may offer short term relief but so does massage, and massage doesn’t run the risks that come with chiropractic treatment. The evidence also suggests that Chiropractic doesn’t work and isn’t worth the money.
Reiki/Shiatsu: there is no evidence that such thing as energy healing exists. Reviews of clinical research into these methods concluded that ‘the evidence is insufficient to suggest that Reiki is an effective treatment for any condition… the value of Reiki remains unproven.”
Acupuncture: there are claims that the needles release endorphins which help ease pain, but it’s an expensive way of getting an endorphin rush! Plus, other studies suggest that any relief from acupuncture is just a placebo. Harriet Hall goes into more detail over on ‘Science-Based Medicine’ here.
Finally, my favourite pet-hate:
Echinacea: Every time I saw someone use this to treat their cough I wanted to scream at them because using this botanical remedy is pretty risky. Read about it here and then throw it away.
As you can see, many of the fads I have covered here all have links to the idea that natural and traditional is best but such thinking can wander into the realms of fallacious thinking. Natural remedies that have medicinal values become medicine and if alternative medical treatments worked they would be… well… medical treatments. There’d be no alternative to them.
Here is a list of websites I use for no-nonsense information about health-based claims when I want to find out if there is any evidence to support them. As someone on a low income, I can’t afford to be misled into spending money on expensive alternatives just because they’re the latest trend. I need evidence.
Hayley’s ‘Evidence or GTFO’ go-to resources: