Fads are known to come and go– in fashion (parachute pants and Members Only jackets), music (hair bands, the Macarena, “Baby Shark”), toys (pet rocks, mood rings, cabbage patch dolls, Beanie babies)– and even in dietary supplements.
In 1994, the natural products industry experienced a landmark that would transform it, setting it on the golden-paved road to the mainstream. This landmark was the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which allowed dietary supplements to be regulated as their own category rather than being subjected to the same regulations as food. This opened the gates for a wider variety of supplements to become available to consumers, and in the following years a number fad supplements burst onto the scene, becoming wildly popular. You may have even had some of these products in your own fridge in the early 2000s.
Shark cartilage: Around the year 2000, shark cartilage supplements were so popular, one brand jumped the shark by telling consumers that shark cartilage can be used as a cancer treatment. Of course, no supplement is a cure for cancer or any disease. And by the time this claim was made, DSHEA was already 6 years old, so the company clearly broke the law and had to pay $1 million in fines for false advertising. The company founder and author of the book, “Sharks Don’t Get Cancer” was shamed when in 2004, a journal article was published describing several types of cancers that sharks can and often develop.
A lot of this hype was based on earlier studies showing that a component in shark cartilage may be able to inhibit angiogenesis – the process of tumor growth through new blood vessel formation.
Shark cartilage supplements are still manufactured and sold, and research into its benefits have abated but not ceased. For example, one study looked at the impact of proteoglycans found in shark cartilage supplements on joint structure and inflammation. The authors report that their preliminary findings showed reductions in pro-inflammatory markers C-reactive protein, COX-2, and TNF-alpha; lesser rate of cartilage erosion and high er bone density in subjects that consumed the supplement.
Hoodia: The Hoodia gordonii plant enjoyed a successful run as the weight-loss herb in the mid-aughts. This African succulent came complete with an exotic story – it has been used for centuries by the South African bush people in the Kalahari desert to remain svelte by helping to suppress appetite. According to an article about the herb’s rise to fame, a phytochemical in hoodia, P57, seems to exert an effect on the hypothalamus, which regulates appetite. P57 had been around awhile, as it was isolated by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1977 when scientists described P57 as an oxypregnane steroidal glycoside and increases the amount of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in the body.
In a widely reported unpublished study, Richard M. Goldfarb, MD, examined the weight management effects of 1000 mg hoodia (DEX-L10) daily for 28 days in 7 overweight participants. Most participants reported consuming significantly fewer calories within days. Furthermore, Goldfarb reported that participants experienced, on average, a 3.3% reduction in body weight, and a median weight loss of 10 pounds." After the appetite suppressant effect accumulates in the system... after only a few days we saw study participants cut their calories in half and not desire any additional food,” he stated.
Horny goat weed: Rarer than hen’s teeth is an individual who doesn’t guffaw or giggle the first time he or she hears the common name of this plant, whose Latin moniker is the more scholarly sounding Epimedium. Launched widely in the US as a supplement around 2000, 2001, the lore says that it was first noticed by farmers in Asia who witnessed their goats getting rather frisky after they ate the plant. So, they tried it for themselves and here we are today, able to buy it for ourselves.
This botanical has been used for centuries in Asia and remains a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine where it is known as yin-yang-huo as a natural aphrodisiac and prescribed for boosting libido and sexual performance in men and women. Epimedium contains an active phytochemical called icariin, which may inhibit an enzyme, PDE5, which suppresses sexual stimulation. Inhibiting PDE5 is a similar action provided by pharmaceuticals such as sildenafil.
More recently, epimedium (as it is now mostly referred to) is being explored for other health applications. For example, one study sought to distinguish epimedium’s flavonoids as a potential supplement to support cognitive abilities.
Noni: The juice of a funky-looking tropical fruit called noni (Morinda citrifolia) made health headlines about 15 to 20 years ago as a supertonic for middle-agers. Like shark cartilage, some brands of noni juice made wild disease claims, prompting the FDA to wield the banhammer.
However, research shows that noni has very strong antioxidant activity, and a 2018 review demonstrates this. Although not the fad it once was, noni juice supplements may have relevant benefit for people who smoke or used to smoke. Several studies of smokers have shown clear and substantial antioxidant activity of consuming noni juice supplements.
In one study, 285 volunteers who smoked more than 20 cigarettes per day consumed either a low dose of noni juice, a higher dose or placebo for 30 days. The authors found that noni consumption reduced average superoxide anion radicals by 26.9% and 30.8% in the low-dose and high-dose groups, respectively. Average lipid hydroperoxide levels in the low-dose group were reduced by 24.5% while the high-dose group experienced a 27.3% reduction. No significant reductions occurred in the placebo group.
Another randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 132 heavy smokers found that those who consumed between 29.5 mL to 188 mL of noni juice daily for one month “significantly reduced cholesterol levels, triglycerides, and hs-CRP. Decreases in LDL and homocysteine, as well increases in HDL, were also observed among noni juice drinkers.”
Deer Velvet: Not suitable for strict vegans, this supplement is the tissue that covers the bone and cartilage of antlers in deer and elk. It has historical use as a food additive to boost immunity, reduce stress response, and to increase strength and sexual performance. It contains insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), which supports the maintenance of human growth hormone production in the body. Another supplement that rocketed to fame about 20 years ago, deer velvet supplements are still marketed, primarily for endurance. In fact, because of its content of IGF-1, both MLB and NFL have banned its use.
Recently, a 2021 study looked at how applying deer antler velvet topically to the scalp would affect hair growth, testing characteristics at days 14 and 30. They found that the deer antler velvet serum significantly enhanced hair elongation and melanin content with increased skin hydration…thereby promoting hair growth without skin irritation.”
Fad supplements really took off after DSHEA was passed, adding tremendous legitimacy to what was once considered mostly a passé fringe market – “health foods.”
Today, dietary supplements become popular based on solid human clinical and safety studies, not anecdotes or studies on animals (although these are useful in building the foundation of research, providing more clarified direction for human trials).
Cursory searches on scientific media do show interest among researchers to explore validity of use of some of these older supplements, potentially in a bid to recast them in a more favorable light and thus give rise to potential reboots.