Last month the Federal Trade Commission sent cease-and-desist letters to 10 companies for advertising unproven treatments or cures for diabetes in a joint effort with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It ordered these companies to stop making unsubstantiated claims or face legal action by the FDA.
It wasn’t the first time companies pushing questionable products claiming to disrupt, or even cure, diabetes have been called out by the FDA. And it won’t be the last. But for every company that receives formal notice, there are likely hundreds more that continue marketing these counterfeits.
Far from being harmless, fake diabetes cures and treatments are risky and can lead to serious health consequences.
The most apparent risk happens when a person using one of these fake treatments stops taking insulin or other prescribed medications, destroying their glucose management. At its most extreme this can result in life threatening diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) or lead to a diabetic coma.
These untested treatments can also have unpredictable negative interactions with legitimate diabetes medications, disrupting glucose management. Consequently, even if the person continues taking insulin or other prescribed medications, adding these fake treatments can risk undermining the effectiveness of their meds and experiencing adverse reactions.
If the person is lucky enough to avoid any physical effects, the risk of psychological consequences remain, which can ultimately undermine their ability to continue managing their diabetes effectively.
“People who have tried different ‘cures’ and have failed become despondent and mistrusting,” Dr. Sof Andrikopoulos, CEO at the Australian Diabetes Society, told DiabetesMine. “I know of many people who start to question even legitimate sources of information.”
So, where do these fakes come from, and how is it that people fall for them?
Fake cures come in several forms. Pills or dietary supplements are probably the most familiar. But they can also take the form of questionable medical procedures or extreme diets.
Pills and supplements are pitched as containing a miracle ingredient that controls blood sugars and restores health. Often it’s an obscure substance, like
Questionable medical procedures are sold as being a better version of some function a healthy body would do naturally. A few years ago, one such procedure being carried out by a questionable clinic in Sacramento, California, had people receiving insulin infusions intravenously. Falsely branded as an “artificial pancreas” treatment, the procedure did nothing to change the body’s ability to produce or effectively use insulin. It merely injected insulin into the bloodstream in very small doses over several hours while the patient sat attached to an IV drip in a clinic. That group was peddling their protocols to clinics from Miami to the Bronx, Las Vegas, and San Diego to the tune of about $300,000 per clinic.
Extreme dietary programs or restrictions are another kind of fake cure or treatment. These are diets that radically limit what a person eats with the promise that they will be relieved of diabetes. Some of these diets limit what the person eats to a particular food or food type. These extreme diets fly in the face of accepted nutritional science by cutting out and vilifying whole categories of food and nutrients, leading to unbalanced and overall unhealthy eating.
Detoxes have also become a trendy method associated with claims to reverse type 2 diabetes. Detoxes are presented as a new way to cure diabetes through an extremely restrictive diet followed for a fixed amount of time. A detox could take a single day or last for weeks. It often requires subsisting on or limiting liquids to water infused with a fruit, vegetable, or spice for some amount of time.
The thing these fakes all have in common is that they are not based on solid science. Often the pitches for these fake cures and treatments allude to a single scientific report that says there is some indication that the key ingredient has an anti-inflammatory effect. What’s missing from these reports is any data on how much of that key ingredient needs to be taken in order to have the desired effect, or data measuring its effect on people who actually have diabetes. More often than not, if you read the small print in the reports these vendors reference, they conclude by saying more study of the substance or procedure is needed.
That lack of empirical evidence is the reason these substances are not FDA approved, although some are able to boast that they are “produced in an FDA-approved facility.” This means the agency has assured that their manufacturing facility is producing products properly, with the right amount of pure ingredients, and can be trusted for safety. It does not mean the FDA has approved the product for any medical effect. In fact,
Given the serious risks that come with fake cures and treatments, you have to wonder why someone would use them. The promises made in the pitches for fake cures and treatments are aimed directly at the major pain points that people living with diabetes experience. They promise to make fluctuating blood sugars, the need for constant monitoring, gastrointestinal problems, and other issues go away — easily and quickly. All you have to do is open your wallet.
The promises are compelling, and these vendors use clever marketing to make them seem irresistible.
False hope. Often the pitch is instead of having to jab yourself throughout the day to monitor your blood sugar, you just take this pill or drink this liquid and your health will be restored. The many difficulties of managing diabetes day in and day out will simply go away. For example, a controversial supplement called Glucofort claims to maintain optimum blood glucose levels in the body, improve circulatory health, combat fatigue, and increase vitality. In the end, when health is not restored and the person has to go back to managing their diabetes as before, they’re often left with feelings of failure and another source of frustration.
Strong salesmanship. Companies that sell these questionable products and treatments are masters of the hard sell. Their websites and ads tap into the emotional stress that comes with living with diabetes and offer a quick, easy alternative. They have the answer to each and every difficult question that comes with having diabetes. And that answer is always whatever they are selling: a pill, a special treatment, a life-altering lifestyle. Claims like “Join over 70,000 diabetics who live better with CuraLin” can make people feel that they are missing out on a method that’s working for thousands of other people.
Fake scientific trappings. As noted, one common tactic is to take a single scientific study, and stretch the truth of what it says by presenting its findings and ideas out of context. An example of this are numerous products that promote the use of fulvic acid (FvA) to help “reverse diabetes.” FvA is a substance found in soil, peat, and coal, and is often touted as a cure-all for numerous conditions. While an oft-cited
More affordable than meds. There’s no denying a $40 bottle of pills is more affordable than a vial of insulin that can cost hundreds. This is especially true if you are led to believe that you only need to buy the pills once (OK, maybe twice) and you’ll be cured. Interestingly, Samuel Levine, acting director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection blamed “out of control insulin prices” for driving people to try “questionable products.”
Even when a fake cure or treatment doesn’t create physical damage, they still leave detrimental psychological effects in their wake, says Dr. Andrikopoulos of the Australian Diabetes Society.
It’s a common reaction to become jaded, feeling that if you’ve been lied to once, it will continue to happen. A belief forms that no one can be trusted and many people with diabetes cut themselves off from any new information even if it comes from a credible source, he said.
Andrikopoulos points out that experiencing “failure” with one of these fake cures can be particularly damaging to people struggling with the social stigma around diabetes.
“We have a really big issue with type 2 diabetes and the stigma associated with these false cures, which suggest it is your fault you have developed diabetes and that you can do something about it. This blame makes the person with type 2 diabetes feel inadequate, self-blaming, and weak — which is further from the truth!”
When this happens, the negative effects of the fake cure stay with the person long after the pill bottle is emptied or the last glass of cucumber water has been drunk.
While no bona fide cure for diabetes is recognized or available, scientific progress is being made on this front.
Islet transplants are showing great promise as a potential cure for type 1 diabetes. Currently this procedure, in which a doctor removes islets with healthy beta cells from a deceased donor and infuses them into the liver of a person with type 1 diabetes, is considered experimental and
Regarding type 2 diabetes (T2D), the medical community is building a consensus around remission — a state in which the person with T2D is able to achieve and maintain blood glucose levels below the clinical diabetes range. In the past few months, several national diabetes organizations (including in the United States and Australia) have issued policy statements laying out a standard definition and measurement for remission.
While neither of these developments means that a cure is currently available, both indicate that science-based, medically-informed efforts to find a diabetes cure are underway.
In the meantime, what can we do to spot and avoid fake cures and treatments?
First of all, always look at any pitch for a diabetes cure or treatment with a critical eye. Consider whether the information presented tells the complete story and lines up with current scientific understanding and medical standards.
How many scientific studies are cited? Are they published in reputable medical journals? Do the “conclusion” sections of these studies actually uphold the claims, or do they simply call for further research?
Other red flags to keep an eye out for include:
- promises that diabetes can be cured with little or no effort
- promises of a quick fix for your diabetes-related problems
- hyperbolic language, such as calling the product being sold “a miracle”
- hard sell tactics, like stating that you must buy NOW, as supplies are limited, etc.
All that being said, it’s important to stay hopeful that diabetes can be well-managed and that legitimate new developments will eventually make this even easier.
To do this, Dr. Andrikopoulos reminds us of the basics:
- Always use trusted sources of information when it comes to diabetes and its management.
- Ensure that you have a diabetes health professional team that is supportive of your personal health journey and respectful of your financial status, family situation, customs, traditions, and religious beliefs.
- Assure that your healthcare team is ready and willing to answer questions you may have about potential supplements or anything else related to your diabetes care.
- Keep a healthy lifestyle and exercise as much as your situation allows.
- Above all, keep a positive outlook.
- And remember: You are not alone and there is a lot of support to be had.