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Clinically and scientifically proven food products - What’s the difference?
Wednesday, 12 August, 2020, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Nina Figueiredo
We have very often seen bold statements made in advertisements for food products / dietary supplements, which use phrases such as ‘doctor recommended' and ‘clinically proven' to assure the consumer that the product actually works. Traditionally, these phrases would be avoided when marketing any products.

Unfortunately, the phrase “clinically proven” is now commonly used in advertising. So what does it actually mean?
A simple Internet search, asking the question “What does ‘clinically proven’ mean?” reveals a number of websites that don’t take this phrase very seriously. What criteria does the product have to meet to be able to use this term?

As the website answers, It means that there was more than one controlled study. ‘Clinically shown’ means there was only one study.
Clinically proven may mean virtually anything. A ‘clinically proven’ statement in advertising is a vague claim that requires no hard evidence and is not easy to disprove. As long as the mandatory ‘These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA’ disclaimer is on the label, it is not necessary to have competent and reliable scientific evidence to back it up.  

If this disclaimer statement is not on the product label or advertisement, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can take action against companies that make false promises in advertising.

For the general public, seeing the phrase clinically proven is not unusual, particularly in advertisements and on product labels for various products. Some companies use this phrase rampantly without any regard for real meaning.

Companies that market products to educated professionals have been cautious about using misleading phrases commonly used in the consumer marketplace. To these professionals, the term clinical suggests clinical trials, which are the foundation of testing regulated by the FDA in order for a product to make claims of efficacy and safety.

In clinical trials, the larger scale comparative studies occur in four phases.
Phase 1: Screening for safety
Phase 2: Establishing the efficacy of the product
Phase 3: Final confirmation of safety and efficacy
Phase 4: Sentry studies during sales

Therefore, professionals would expect that if a product were truly clinically proven, it would have had testing in numerous trials that validate the claims beyond any reasonable doubt. Even then, the question arises whether any product can make such a claim.

Companies that advertise should raise the bar and maintain honesty and credibility when making statements regarding scientific studies of their products. It is always suggested that companies use the term, clinically tested when they have actually performed multiple clinical studies that have produced statistically valid conclusions. If a single laboratory study has occurred, the company should not use the word clinical. In all cases, companies should avoid using the word proven in advertising of food product.

Now on the other hand, what does Scientifically Proven really mean?
Science is primarily an approach to knowledge; both a philosophy and collection of methods for developing an understanding of reality.
The label of ‘scientifically proven' has also become a potent marketing tool. There may be suspicion of scientists and technology, and plenty of interest in vague and comforting alternative philosophies but when the situation is difficult people throughout the world trust science more as the most reliable source of information.

Due of this, it is very difficult to find advertising for a food product or dietary supplement that does not claim the product is scientifically proven to work.

Unfortunately, most of those who use this language to market their wares do not appear to know, what it actually means, and the information to judge the truth of the claim is rarely made available to consumers.
So when deciding whether or not to trust a claim that something is scientifically proven, it is important to have some idea what such a claim might actually mean, if true, and what level of evidence is necessary to reasonably make it. Therefore, reliable science-based claims for a food product for example should reflect the degree of supporting data.
‘Scientifically proven' to increase your immunity, is not a claim that is very likely to be supportable through real evidence. ‘May help with' increasing immunity, is far more likely to be true.

Therefore, a key principle in evaluating these claims is negative evidence is more reliable than positive evidence.

Sure, if you have 10 studies by different researchers in different parts of the world, including some that deliberately set out to disprove the findings of earlier researchers, and they all get the same answer, you can be pretty sure that is the right answer.

However, when the evidence is conflicting, when early studies look better than later ones, when low quality studies are positive and better ones negative, or when only one research group can get positive results, the better bet by far is that the product being studied may not really work.
So the bottom line is because most people understand that science works better than any other method for determining which medical claims are true or false, promoting a therapy as ‘scientifically proven' is a powerful marketing tool.

However, the level of evidence usually available in medicine rarely justifies sweeping, absolute claims. Less dramatic, more qualified and realistic claims are more likely to be true. And not all evidence is created equal. Some of the most common and emotionally compelling kinds of evidence used in advertising, such as the opinions of smart, famous people and the testimonials of satisfied customers, are not always reliable and can be very misleading.

Even truly scientific evidence varies from merely suggestive to pretty clear and definitive.  And even evidence from published clinical trials must be given credence in proportion to the size, number, and quality of the studies that support a claim.

Finally, since our biases are almost always in favour of confirming what we already believe to be true, negative evidence is far more reliable than positive evidence.

(The author is a clinical dietician. She can be reached at
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