Holding back the tide – it’s alkaline, by the way

In which Dr Aust tries to keep things in proportion

A common feeling of those who write about pseudoscience is that one is a bit like King Canute, the man who was supposed to have ordered the waves to retreat.

For instance, for all that has been written about what a total con water ionizers are, people still sell them, and other people still buy them.

And for all that has been written about how “alkaline water” is a bunch of bullshit and a scam – including by me – there are still preposterous claims for its health benefits everywhere. Blogger Andrew Taylor just posted another such claim, which he says he got as a spam email. It is a particularly daft one as it talks about water being ionized, or separated, by their machine into “alkaline water” and “acid water”.

Now, this kind of stuff always claims “alkaline water” is good for you, and the email Andrew got is no exception:

“Alkaline Water being the healthiest drinking water available to us, because it will increase the pH of your body, detoxifies and has an abundance of anti-oxidants”

[Hmm. It can only have antioxidants in it if it has lots of dissolved organic material, actually. Not convinced lots of dissolved organic material is really something you would want in your drinking water. But I digress.]

Having read that boilerplate, but typically overblown claim – “the healthiest… detoxifies…” – I’m tempted to ask sarcastically whether the stuff cures cancer too. Depressingly, the people selling this are there already:

“Due to restrictions on regulating the things we can claim publicly, we can not say certain things, that’s why I want you to do your own research specially on the “C” word”

Sigh. As all too often, the hyperbolic general claims about “detoxifying” are just the scene-setting for the subsequent hint of something miraculous that will cure real, and serious, diseases. (It won’t, of course.) What this suggests is that the sellers are targetting their claims at the sick and desperate, as well as the “worried well”.

Now, remember also that this piece of sales pitch claimed to “separate” water into alkaline and acid fractions. While most quacks tend to claim routinely that “acidity” is bad for you, this email makes an extra virtue of the claimed “acid” water (which won’t actually be acid in any meaningful sense, but that’s another story) by claiming:

“The Acidic Water that is produced is a cleanser and is very good for skin conditions such as the eczema, cleaning vegetables, fruit etc”

Remarkable. No wasted water with Woo-water.

I am oddly reminded of a spa town in southern Spain where I once went for a conference years ago. The major product of the town was its bottled water, and the people in the hotel bar used to tell us how good it was for you. “Good for drinking. For your insides. Makes you healthy”. And if you didn’t like the taste, no problem: “Good for bathing in. For your skin. And for people with arthritis” Good inside OR out. Good acid OR alkaline. Just send money.

Anyway, faced with this daily tide of garbage, it is possible to feel rather like old Canute.

Except that…. the story (which is almost certainly apocryphal anyway) is not supposed to carry the meaning that Canute (or “Knut”, since Canute is an anglicization of Knut) really thought he could turn back the waves.

According to the story as commonly told, he did his commanding-the-waves routine as a lesson to his courtiers that he could NOT actually command the waves to retreat, even if they – the courtiers – kept buttering him up by telling him he was a great king, mighty and wise, could do anything etc etc.

Would that many modern leaders, whether political or in large organisations, were as aware of their own limitations.

Anyway, in the story Knut/Canute is presented as a man with a bit of insight, and not someone who would beat himself up if the tide refused to retreat on command.

Which brings me back to alkaline water. I wrote a post on this almost exactly three years ago (it went live on March 1st 2008) called:

What Could Be So Fine… As to be Alkaline (Warning: Irony)

The post has logged over 1200 “page loads”, so most days, on average, someone has at least had it open in a browser. Last month there were twenty-seven. I hope some of those people read it. I hope some of them found it useful, and that perhaps it helped to clarify for some of them why alkaline water is a scam.

And like the Knut of the story, I am not hoping for miracles. So I will settle for that.

21 Responses to “Holding back the tide – it’s alkaline, by the way”

  1. Richard Says:

    Amusingly enough, at the end of the article appears…

    Ads by Google

    Healthy Alkaline Water Ionizer
    High Quality Filtration System Alkaline Water For Better Health
    http://www.amazingwater.co.uk

  2. stephenemoss Says:

    I wonder just how much (stifles laugh) of this ‘alkaline water’ you would need to drink (giggles) to raise your body pH? I guess it would depend (guffaws) on the pH of the ‘water’, and to launch another concept, the molarity (belly laughs and stamps feet) of the alkaline component. Either way, caution should be the watchword (losing bladder control), as a blood pH of anything over 7.45 is clinical alkalosis – which can be extremely serious (helpless convulsions). And given that normal blood pH is around 7.35, this must be a very fine balancing act (gets sides re-stitched).

  3. DIY Health Says:

    Sometimes our faith in the product creates miracles. Most of them always say ” no approved therapeutic claims” but still many people are willing to take any shot at the things that will make them well and this product is not an exemption.. Good for those who believe and got healed.. to bad for those who were skeptic and claimed the whole thing to be bogus in the end…

  4. draust Says:

    @Richard

    - *Sigh* Oh dear. Sadly that kind of thing is an occupational hazard of any system (like Google) that uses your own words to “target” advertising at you (and your readers). Back when I was writing a lot about the Simon Singh libel case, Gmail always used to run ads on my mail homepage directing me to chiropractic clinics.

    @Stephenemoss

    Yes, quite. It makes your head hurt, really. You could check out my old post that I mentioned, which tackles those sort of ideas in a chemically disbelieving (and mildly exasperated) way. With millimoles.

    Which reminds me, it will soon be time for my annual acid-base balance lectures to the medical students. Perhaps I will mention “alkaline water” this year. Should be good for a cheap laugh, and perhaps inoculate some of them against acid-base-woo.

    @DIY health

    “Sometimes our faith in the product creates miracles.”

    Hmmm. Sometimes things get better on their own, and we ascribe miraculous properties to the inactive stuff we were taking at the time. This is a major plank of alternative medicine. But the condition would have got better without the Miracle Nostrum, and the “patient” could have kept their money. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr explained this nicely back in the 1840s, and it remains just as true today.

    Another point is that AltMed enthusiasts ascribe to their Miracle Remedies effects which are actually likely to be due to the conventional treatments they are having at the same time. This is particularly obvious in cancer. In his excellent book Snake Oil, cancer sufferer John Diamond notes that every time someone supplies him with a personal testimonial for a Miracle Cure that had “cured my/my relative’s XZY cancer”, it turns out the person was having conventional surgical/radio/chemo cancer treatment too. But they chose to believe it was the AltMed that helped them. Scientists and conventional doctors, who actually look at the evidence, would be sceptical.

  5. Nico Says:

    Hmmm, I thought alkaline-pH water (like Vichy water) was good for acid reflux only, it turns out I was treating myself against most ailments except maybe death! [ / End sarcasm ]

    Sounds similar to the claims that bleach seller made before Rhys Morgan skewered him.

  6. Nico Says:

    Ah balls, there was supposed to be an [end sarcasm] before the second paragraph, all my humour is now infinitely diluted for the sake of a fake HTML tag! Can we have preview please or is it too complicated?
    Pre-emptive joke: MT5 will fix that.

  7. draust Says:

    No preview in the default WordPress install, Nico, AFAIK. Have fixed the HTML, though. The God-like powers of the Blog Overlord, and so on.

  8. Leo McDevitt Says:

    If Alkaline water has no health benefits, why has the pain in my wife’s knees stopped? She has had osteoarthritis since before we met in 2001, and lived with the pain in her knees every day.

    We started drinking alkaline water in October, 2010, she noticed that her pain was gone in January of 2011. She has been living pain-free ever since, and is even walking 2 miles a day now!

    Unless you can come up with a reason for my wife’s knees to suddenly become pain-free, you should keep your badly misinformed opinions to yourself!

  9. Richard Says:

    “If Alkaline water has no health benefits, why has the pain in my wife’s knees stopped?”

    Good question. Maybe she got better.

    “Unless you can come up with a reason for my wife’s knees to suddenly become pain-free, you should keep your badly misinformed opinions to yourself!”

    Mmm. Another convincing argument from a true believer who understands that any awareness of the scientific method is a hindrance when engaged in disputes on the internet.

  10. menchu4901 Says:

    Errr, umm, are you referring to water filters, the kind that sit on your tap and filter out the crap that is in our drinking water? If so, I believe! I think I wouldn’t be alive today otherwise… :< )

  11. josephinejones Says:

    Have a look at the Quackwatch article on Robert Young (under Irrational Theories). For those who don’t get it, this explains why the whole Alkaline Diet idea is a load of nonsense. Obviously if you’re suffering from indigestion or heartburn then taking antacids (alkalis) help but that isn’t to do with the pH of the bloodstream.

  12. draust Says:

    Thanks, Josephine – have commented on the stupendously ludicrous claims of Robert Young elsewhere, but not written about him here – perhaps I should.

    And thanks also to Richard above (March 8th) for the note of reality.

    Have been a bit busy/lazy about responding recently, but will post a response to the water enthusiasts in a day or two.

  13. Leo McDevitt Says:

    Richard
    How does someone suddenly “get better” from osteoarthritis??? My wife had daily pain in her knees since 2001. Today, 10 years later, she is walking without pain every day.

    We tried everything over the course of those two years, supplements, physical therapy, special diets, and while it seemed to stop getting any worse, the pain in her knees was still there, ever single day.

    You may find claims for alkaline water hard to believe, but I find your claim of spontaneous healing (from osteoarthritis) impossible to believe: “Good question. Maybe she got better.”

    It is now March, and my wife’s knees are still doing fine. Keep in mind that there is still damage from the osteoarthritis, that hasn’t magically disappeared. All I am claiming is that the pain she had every day is gone, and she is walking more. She can still become sore if she overdoes it!

    I’m not a doctor, but I am smart enough to know there is something more going on than a placebo effect. I support healthy skepticism, but dismissing out-of-hand facts surrounding a subject is not it!

    Richard, I highly recommend you read up on scientific method! Your claim of spontaneous healing for my wife’s osteoarthritis is utter nonsense, and if you were applying scientific method, you would never have made it.

  14. josephinejones Says:

    Dr Aust – I am wondering how you feel about yesterday’s Evening Standard article about the alkaline diet? I was appalled by such nonsense appearing in a reputable newspaper and have just written a letter of complaint to the editor and a blog post about the whole thing.

    http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/health/article-23936766-raise-your-ph-level-like-a-celebrity.do

  15. draust Says:

    @JosephineJones

    “I was appalled by such nonsense appearing in a reputable newspaper and have just written a letter of complaint to the editor….”

    Good for you. It was an astonishingly dire bit of “Polly Filler” journalism. You seem to have done a nice job of taking it down on your blog.

    Really, the article was so jaw-droppingly dreadful that it was one of those that get you thinking that satire is redundant when reality is so parodic. But we seem to see a lot of that these days. And as to how it makes me think the Standard’s editors view their readers, and what said readers deserve…. hmmm. I wouldn’t call it treating the readers with respect, to put it mildly.

    What I find mystifying about “Dr” – not – Young and his alkaline diet, and about “Live Blood Cell Analysis”, another straightforward scam, is that people are taken in by such transparent garbage. It isn’t even a fairly sophisticated and well-polished racket like chiropractic or homeopathy. But articles like the one in the Standard certainly don’t help.

    BTW, a good thread on Young, showing that even some of the Alt.Health people find his nonsense too much for them, is here.

  16. josephinejones Says:

    Thanks for the links draust. I agree it is so transparent, it’s shocking how easily people are taken in. I had a response from the Evening Standard (pasted in full to my blog). The journalist says she was given misleading information and that she did not intend to mislead anybody. She basically admits to being taken in by it herself. The article has now been removed from the ES site. Although this is a result of sorts, I am not completely happy and will blog further developments.

    Sorry to anyone who missed out on reading the original article. I thankfully have a copy of the text for future reference.

  17. josephinejones Says:

    FYI – the Evening Standard’s in house doctor, Christian Jessen has published a follow up piece where he basically says alkaline diets are ‘silly but harmless’ http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/health/article-23939049-alkaline-diets-are-silly-but-harmless.do.

    He helpfully explains why it is nonsense and points out Young’s lack of credentials but seems to think I’ve overreacted. I’ve commented on the article and blogged about it.

  18. This week’s Alkaline ASA Adjudication: Alkalized Water not as miraculous as they claim | Josephine Jones Says:

    [...] has already been blogged by Dr. Aust here and here, the alkaline water concept is ‘bullshit’. Eco World Content From Across [...]

  19. The 21st Floor » Blog Archive » Skeptic News: Balance Water and the ASA Says:

    [...] A number of other claims were also made in relation to the products supposed anti-oxidant properties, the clustering of the water molecules and claims that the product cold cure diabetes. You can find more information on the adjudication here and the  the alkaline water concept has been blogged by Dr. Aust here and here. [...]

  20. Maurice Says:

    The debunkers always believe that by ridiculing the claims made in the marketing literature for alkaline water machines they have thus proven that these devices are a scam. They are not interested in trying the water themselves or talking to other people who have tried it or reading research literature on the subject. Of course, the claims made by the marketers are often absurd, but so are the claims made in marketing for many consumer products. People buy these products not because they are stupid enough to believe the hype, but rather because they work. If the manufacturers of alkaline water machines were honest they would admit that they do not understand how the biological effects of the water work, but in order to sell them they have to gain the confidence of consumers by coming up with convincing explanations for how the science of alkaline water works.

    Claims for the healing properties of special water have the most credibility when no-one has an economic interest in the technology to produce it. For example in 2004 Pat Beatty claimed to have obtained relief from her Fibroyalgia drinking electrified water produced from a device made from kitchen junk. Several people in the Curezone forum attempted to replicate her device and claimed to have obtained benefits similar to those that people are supposed to have obtained from alkaline water machines.

  21. Sandra Allen Says:

    I wish I could find you on facebook! I have a friend (and his friends) mocking me because I believe that water is water and distilled water is a money making business.
    They believe distilled water will make them pure and live longer.

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