Miracle cures: How to separate the solutions from the snake oil


One of my favorite scenes in Man on the Moon occurs near the end: Andy Kaufman, played by Jim Carrey, is in the Philippines, awaiting a miracle treatment for the cancer that is killing him. Looking over at the doctor, Kaufman sees him hide some chicken gizzards in his hand before pretending to pull them out of a patient. As he lays back against his gurney, Kaufman smiles; a lifelong prankster, he realizes that he, himself has fallen for a trick.

While I wouldn't call myself an herbalist, a naturalist, or a witch doctor, I definitely have an appreciation of alternative remedies. When I'm feeling under the weather, I try to eat a couple of oysters or a plate of ceviche: both are high in zinc, and often get me back on my feet. I take fish oil every day, and have been known to indulge in mushroom pills, garlic supplements, Kava-kava, and the occasional glass of absinthe.

That having been said, I'm also aware that the FDA exists for a reason. Recently, the government agency cracked down on 25 retailers who were selling so-called "cancer cures" under false pretenses. Because the internet has made it possible for overseas con artists to sell fake cures to Americans, it is almost impossible for the FDA to completely police all of the snake-oil salesmen out there. With that in mind, they have produced a list of warning signs that a product is not legitimate: