“Just something to think about,” he says, “but with things like this, when you eat it in its natural form, there are benefits. But when you take it out and isolate it, for whatever reason, sometimes it doesn’t work. That’s why when I used to take vitamin C, I’d take it with orange juice.”
I wasn’t expecting doctors who work with food companies to raise these concerns. Function and most of its competitors use antioxidants—in marketing terms, antioxidants are the best thing these drinks have going. But there’s not much evidence that antioxidant-infused drinks provide any health benefit. They do their job in test tubes, says New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, but give antioxidants to real people in clinical trials and they show less of an effect. Maybe they only work in tandem with other food elements, or maybe we have our eye on the wrong ball—perhaps we’ve plucked the wrong compounds out of fruits and vegetables. But spicing our foods with antioxidants, Nestle later tells me, can be a waste of time. “In almost every case it’s been tested in clinical trials,” she says, “it’s been shown to have not much beneficial effect.” She says that in a few trials they’ve even had a harmful effect. “When it comes to vitamins and antioxidants, some is good; more is not better.”
Hughes takes in Robert’s comments and nods. “You’re totally right to point that out,” he says. “And yeah, certainly we’d have to have something that we know would work.” He takes the industry’s side of the argument: that beneficial compounds found naturally in foods are often processed out, or occur at such low levels that they don’t make much difference. If the science demonstrates that you can isolate a certain compound without losing efficacy, he says, then it can be consumed at high-enough concentrations to be useful.
“That falls under the category of better living through chemistry,” says Jennifer. She means it as encouragement, but clearly this isn’t the motto Hughes hopes to emblazon on the drinks. “When you have a population trending toward obesity like we do,” she continues, “maybe it’s time to medicalize food.”
For many years, this line of reasoning has proved compelling both to health advocates and the food industry, but as any Michael Pollan–worshipping locavore will tell you (and probably already has), “nutritionism” has its drawbacks. “Don’t forget,” Pollan has written, “that trans-fat-rich margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim it was healthier than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks.” Science is great for you, except when it’s not. Vitamins are healthy, except when they’re not. Bottling “healthiness” has served the beverage industry well, but even the most loyal customers are liable to flee if they fear they are being played for suckers. And Function, because it is serious enough about science to provide citations on its Web page, is particularly vulnerable to critique.
Consider Urban Detox. This drink contains prickly-pear extract, which is said to help blunt a hangover. In a Tulane University trial, doctors asked volunteers to take a prickly-pear-extract pill, drink heavily, and then report their symptoms the next day. The study showed a significant lessening of three out of nine symptoms: nausea, dry mouth, and loss of appetite. Yet even this small effect is suspect—Extracts Plus, the company that manufactured the prickly-pear pills, provided funding for this trial.
Hughes concedes that the funding for the prickly-pear study makes it less convincing (although Function still refers to the study as having “proven” the benefits of the extract). “That’s why we’ve decided not to pay for science ourselves,” he said. “I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why don’t you believe in my product? There’s $20 million of science behind it.’ Well, with $20 million you can buy whatever result you want.” In the prickly-pear case, though, Hughes says he was impressed that academic doctors had carried out the experiment. It was a double-blind randomized trial, meaning neither the researchers nor the volunteers knew if they were getting the extract or a placebo. But he agrees that one small, industry-funded trial does not amount to conclusive evidence.
In Urban Detox, Hughes paired the prickly-pear extract with a component that he says has a heftier scientific foundation. “There are some things we use, though, that are just no-brainers,” he explains. “N-acetylcysteine—asking if that’s effective is like asking if a parachute is effective for someone falling out of an airplane.”
N-acetylcysteine does seem promising, as it’s used routinely in hospitals to treat people who have overdosed on Tylenol. But this in no way relates to hangovers. According to Thomas Schiano, a liver specialist at the Mount Sinai Medical Center, it is not generally used to protect the liver from alcohol. “There’s no data on that,” Schiano says. “I’m not sure that’s not false advertising.”