March 13, 2009 -- In an unusual twist, a prominent U.K. scientist is accusing Prince Charles of contributing to the "ill health of the nation" by backing with his name an herbal detox product that sells for about $13.75 per bottle.
The crown prince is certainly not the first celebrity name to be associated with the worldwide detoxification trend. Still, the concerns expressed by Edzard Ernst, Britain's top complementary and alternative medicine expert and director of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School, about the royal's involvement with the Duchy Originals product line reached beyond the country's shores this week.
The product in question is "Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture," which contains dandelion and artichoke extracts. The Duchy Originals Web site suggests that those using the formulation take a few drops of it with water twice a day to "help eliminate toxins and aid digestion."
Ernst, in his comments to the U.K. media, made clear that he believed the claims were unfounded.
"Under the banner of holistic and integrative health care, he promotes a 'quick fix' and outright quackery," Ernst told Britain's The Daily Mail newspaper Tuesday. "Prince Charles and his advisers seem to deliberately ignore science and prefer to rely on make-believe and superstition."
Ernst could not be reached for further comment. Meanwhile, Duchy Originals refused to comment on Ernst's tirade beyond a statement issued by CEO Andrew Baker shortly after his comments became public.
"There is no 'quackery,' no 'make-believe' and no 'superstition' in any of the Duchy Originals herbal tinctures," the statement reads. "We find it unfortunate that Professor Ernst should chase sensationalist headlines in this way rather than concentrating on accuracy and objectivity."
Baker further noted that the solution is marketed as a food supplement in accordance with all national and local laws and "has never been described as a medicine, remedy or cure for any disease."
While the fallout from Ernst's comments continues to polarize medical professionals and the public in the U.K., alternative medicine experts in the United States said that the situation underscores misconceptions that exist about detox in this country as well.
Detox May Be Getting a Bad Rap
Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the Austin, Texas-based herbal medicine think-tank American Botanical Council, said that part of the thrust behind the detox movement is the idea that the food supply and environment of today expose people to higher levels of chemicals and pollutants than in the past.
"Many people -- rationally or irrationally, correctly or not -- believe strongly that they must detoxify their bodies to give themselves that extra edge to get rid of [these chemicals]," he said. "There is probably a healthy and rational basis for some of this, though some people take it a bit too far."
And Dr. Roberta Lee, vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, said detoxification as a concept may be getting an undeservedly bad rap.
"Detoxification is a natural process that occurs in the body, though it is not labeled as such in the medical profession," she said. "The idea that detox is a silly notion, I think, is a fallacy."
The Truth Behind Detox
One thing that is clear about detox, however, is that it is a lucrative concept. In a herbal and nutritional supplement industry that reaps an estimated $23 billion in sales in the United States each year, "detox" is the new hot-button term. Celebrities openly adhere to and advocate a variety of detox diets, while treatments that purport to cleanse blood, liver and bowels line the shelves of supplement stores throughout the country.
Blumenthal noted, though, that Prince Charles may have come about his advocacy of herbal products honestly.
"Prince Charles and his whole family have been using homeopathy for three generations," he said. "Prince Charles grew up in a family in which natural medicine was the norm."
Indeed, detoxification is far from a new idea; Blumenthal added that the basic concept of flushing unhealthy substances from the body goes back 150 years or more. And in its purest form, Lee said, it is not an unhealthy proposition.
Detox Is No 'Get-Out-of-Jail-Free' Card
"Detox is about changing the diet, eating good food," she said. "It's a matter of how we frame it."
But Blumenthal and Lee agreed that all too often, people view detox as a "get-out-of-jail-free" card for indulgence in unhealthy behaviors. And, occasionally, an ill-conceived detox plan can be even more unhealthy than the behaviors that spurred it.
"Depending on how extreme [a detox strategy] is, there can be risks of that kind of approach," Blumenthal said, citing, for instance, one well-known "cleanse" plan in which an individual consumes nothing but a mixture of water, lemon juice and maple syrup for days on end.
"For some people, this may be totally contraindicated," he said. "People need to apply these things with common sense."
And he said this argument may have been what prompted the comments from Ernst, who, incidentally, was the 2006 recipient of the American Botanical Council's Norman R. Farnsworth Botanical Research Award.
"What he is saying here is that the notion that people might be able to detox as an excuse to continue non-healthy lifestyles is the wrong idea," Blumenthal said.
Still, many medical scientists in the U.K. are using the comments to launch an all-out attack on detox. Tom Wells of the Voice of Young Science network, which includes more than 300 early-career medical researchers, issued a statement on the group's Web site that further chastised the prominent royal's involvement in the product line.
"It seems outrageous for companies to be making money selling meaningless products, but for the heir to the throne to be doing so, at 10 pounds a pop, is even more inappropriate," Wells' statement reads. "We'd like to see an end to detox products on the British high street, starting with Prince Charles' detox tincture."
Voice of Young Science network has underscored its position by distributing "Debunking Detox" leaflets in London in the past week.
Simply Detox or a Healthier Lifestyle?
Lee finds fault with an all-out war on detox, saying the medical community should strive to be more open to dialogue with patients and the botanical community about legitimate detox strategies.
A Growing Divide Between Doctors and Detoxers
"I don't think that you can use a tincture for activity at the level of pharmaceuticals, but certainly there are animal trials that suggest that there is some activity there," she said. "This is not an entirely unfounded claim."
And she said she believes Ernst's statements may have widened the gulf between doctors and consumers of these products.
"I think that we all have to agree that being an open-minded skeptic is a reasonable thing for every scientist," she said. "But I think that housing [criticisms] in a language that does not allow room for discussion is not helpful."
Esther Young contributed to this report.