In the past few years, detox teas have taken the wellness industry by storm. Sales of ‘detox’ and ‘skinny’ teas have grown rapidly and they’ve since gone onto to take the form of powders, shakes, and even lollipops.
Celebrities and Instagram influencers have been quick to jump on this marketing opportunity. Khloe Kardashian, Cardi B and Demi Lovato have all promoted ‘skinny’, ‘fit’ and ‘detox’ teas to their fans, praising them for their health benefits and claiming they can “help get your tummy back to flat.”
But there is an ugly truth behind the pretty packaging and sponsored posts. Studies have shown harmful side effects that go beyond weight loss.
In New Zealand, officials are aiming to rein in these ‘detox’ products. Just last week, Consumer NZ pulled diet and ‘detox’ teas from shelves. Antoinette Spicer from Consumer NZ said the products contained “Senna leaf, a natural laxative that can have nasty side effects and lead to liver damage if taken for too long.”
The United States FDA often classifies ‘detox’ teas as supplements, meaning they aren’t tested the same way medication would be. This makes it hard for consumers to understand the full extent of harmful effects these diet products can have.
What is in ‘detox’ and ‘diet’ tea?
Under the guise of ‘cleansing’ and ‘detoxifying’, these teas often contain unhealthy weight loss ingredients. While not all detox teas are made with the same ingredients, many of the popular ones contain some form of laxative.
‘Senna’ is the most common, and while a natural herb, it’s basic function is to work as a laxative. Liquorice root, dandelion root, milk thistle and yellow dock are other ingredients found in these teas.
“These types of products make various claims about weight loss or ‘detoxing’ but they can be little more than laxatives in disguise,” said Sue Chetwin, Consumer NZ chief executive. She went on to advise consumers not to waste money on diet and detox teas. “There’s no good evidence these products provide any benefits and they could even do you harm.”
The dangers of detox
A 2017 case, published in Gastrointestinal Medicine, found that detox tea had caused acute liver failure in a woman after she drank it for two weeks. The doctors found that six of the ingredients in the tea were poisonous to liver cells.
Despite the health benefits many of these teas claim to have, doctors do not see scientific evidence to back it up. Otago University professor of medicine and human nutrition Jim Mann told Consumer NZ he “strongly advises” against taking diet or detox teas. “There is no need to ‘detox’ our bodies as we already have an immune system, liver and kidneys, which naturally detoxify our bodies themselves,” he says.
Liquorice root, a common ingredient in diet teas, has also shown to interfere with birth control medications and cause inflammation in the gut, says Dr Sarah Baird, Otago University toxicology lecturer.
Body-neutrality activist and founder of I-weigh, Jameela Jamil, is a vocal opponent of detox teas. “Diet and detox products are more than just products that exploit the insecurities of vulnerable teenage consumers, they can lead to long-term health side effects,” says Jamil.
Last year, she worked with Facebook and Instagram to ban influencers from selling diet and detox products to people under the age of 18.
In New Zealand, companies that advertise or sell pharmacy-only medicines (such as senna) without consent can be fined up to $100,000. Consumer NZ says they “want to see better regulation of herbal products” to protect consumers from misleading claims.