The Enduring Menace of Detox Teas

Despite widespread criticism, brands like Flat Tummy Tea are still booming

“Food baby or real baby, bloat is a total b*tch!”

Heavily pregnant model Amber Rose instagrammed the above caption this June while holding a bag of Flat Tummy’s pregnancy tea. “It’s safe to take while pregnant,” she wrote. “Haters stop riding the bandwagon! #ad.”

Flat Tummy’s millennial pink webpage claims the pregnancy tea can aid nausea and digestion, “For our bloated babes!” Yet in small print at the bottom of the page the company notes: “Please do not use the products available on the site when pregnant or breastfeeding.” After being called out for this discrepancy, Rose deleted her post.

“They’re recycling the same deceptive marketing — that you can drink a tea to detox your body. It’s a false claim.”

A prolific “teatox” industry has taken over social media, espousing the same message: drink a special tea and obtain the Instagram body of your dreams. Or you can suck it — in June 2018, Flat Tummy Tea launched a line of appetite suppressing lollipops. Other tea brands include Bootea, Skinny Mint Tea, SkinnyMe Tea, and Teami. The teas are pushed by an army of ambassadors — including celebrities like Cardi B and Kylie Jenner — who flood social media with glowing accounts. If the rich and famous are shilling it, it must be effective, right?

“The tea companies are recycling the same deceptive marketing — that you can drink a tea to detox your body,” says Bill Sukala, PhD, an Australia-based consumer health advocate. “It’s a false claim.”

The fact is, the slimming teas are simply rebranded laxatives. Six of the seven ingredients in Flat Tummy’s Activate tea have a laxative effect, and the seventh is a diuretic. The companies — and the influencers that promote them — have been called out on this fact by everyone from fellow celebrities like Jameela Jamil to Harvard health professors. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. senators have also criticized the companies for peddling pseudoscience and contributing to disordered eating. In 2019, New York state introduced legislation to ban senna products (a laxative ingredient found in many of the teas) for sale to people under 18 and a petition to remove a Flat Tummy Times Square billboard has over 101,000 signatures.

Even so, the teatox trend continues. (Elemental contacted Flat Tummy for a response. “We’re not currently able to collaborate,” a spokesperson emailed back. “All the best babe!”)

Mike Newton, an influencer expert at Tradecraft, a program that trains people to work at startups, is unsurprised. Detox tea companies have weaponized self-care, he says. “Their copy talks about taking care of yourself: you’re busy, you work so hard, you have so many demands on your time. They borrow the credibility of the influencers to give themselves a stamp of approval. If an influencer you trust says it’s awesome, people will buy it and the brand will be positively associated with that person.” Newton knows this playbook; as former talent manager for the chat app Discord, he brokered many influencer partnerships, using them to grow Discord to 1.4 million followers and 130 million users in two years.

For that reason, influencers have a duty of care to their audience, says Jessica Markwood, strategy director at the influencer network, The Fifth. “Influencer marketing can outperform any other marketing channel — there are countless stories of influencers posting and selling out of products or crashing brand websites within minutes,” she says.

That kind of success has happened time and again for detox teas, regardless of the criticism they’ve received. In 2012, a 22-year-old marketing assistant, Gretta van Riel splurged on a designer handbag. Feeling broke (she had $24 till her next check), she went to bed that night and had a vision: tea. Her friends loved being healthy, and everyone knew that tea was good for you. She bought a bunch of loose ingredients and mixed them up in her mother’s kitchen, using a formula she’d found online — yerba maté for energy and senna for its laxative effect. She hyped up her SkinnyMe Tea on Instagram: Energy! Weight Loss! Cleansing! Social media users who promoted it got free samples. One month later, she made $1,000 in a day.

Losing weight is hard and slow. The allure of a magic tea is that it’s a shortcut.

Today SkinnyMe Tea makes an estimated $37.8 million a year (compared to Flat Tummy’s $35.7 million). Van Riel’s business skills have been praised by Vogue and SkinnyMe Tea’s success has placed her on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list. And there’s more money to be made: The global detox market is forecast to make $69.85 billion by 2025, according to market research company, Grand View Research. Markwood, for her part, says she won’t work with teatox companies; she says they’re irresponsible, and promote unattainable ideals to an impressionable audience. “They’re selling the belief that if you buy this product you can look like me,” she says.

Shouldn’t the companies selling these products be held accountable for their claims? Detox teas can reduce contraceptive effectiveness, and, in rare cases, cause liver failure. But legally, the way these companies do business is untouchable; they sell the teas as dietary supplements, and therefore they do not need to conduct clinical trials or prove their safety and efficacy before the teas hit the market.

For example, consider satiereal, the “magic” ingredient in Flat Tummy’s weight loss lollies. Only a couple of studies have been published on its effectiveness — a satiereal-funded one in 2010 which showed a slight weight loss effect, and a 2018 study that found zero impact on weight loss. “They went to market on one study,” Sukala says. “Consumers are the guinea pigs.”

The appeal of detox teas is understandable. Losing weight is hard and slow. The allure of a magic tea (or toning shoes or waist trainers) is that it’s a shortcut. It taps into the conception that there’s a silver bullet for the inner circle.

One of the primary problems with the proliferation of detox teas is that they spread an unattainable body ideal with claims that are not backed by science. When people inevitably fail to get results, they may blame themselves and their willpower, not the company. And the cycle continues.

“The industry pushes body weight as a metric of success,” says Sukala. “You’re buying into a gimmick.”

Tech+Culture f/lance journo. Bylines: OneZero, Marker, Atlantic, Forbes, etc. Pre-order: The Future of Science Is Female

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