“I can’t figure this out,” Senator Claire McCaskill prompted Mehmet Oz yesterday, from halfway across a capacious hearing room. Her tone implied that, at least to some degree, she had figured it out.
That was the reason her subcommittee summoned Oz to Washington.
“I get that you do a lot of good on your show. I understand that you give a lot of great information about health in a way that’s easily understandable. You’re very talented, you’re obviously very bright, and you’ve been trained in science-based medicine." Accolades piled up until a buckling of decorum was imminent.
"Now, here are three statements you made on your show."
McCaskill read Oz’s words from past segments of The Dr. Oz Show back to him with a clinical formality that underscored their absurdity:
“You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight loss cure for every body type: It’s green coffee extract.”
“I've got the number-one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat: It's raspberry ketone.”
“Garcinia cambogia: It may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.”
McCaskill continued, as if reproaching a child. “I don't know why you need to say this stuff, because you know it's not true. Why—when you have this amazing megaphone and this amazing ability to communicate—would you cheapen your show by saying things like that?”
“If I could disagree about whether they work or not,” Oz contested, speaking quickly but betraying more diffidence than his face seems used to bearing, “and I'll move on to the issue of the words that I used.”
In the world of health-media broadcasting, the words one uses are a pretty central issue. At least Oz agreed to be a witness at the hearing, “Protecting Consumers from False and Deceptive Advertising of Weight-Loss Products,” saying that he is a “cheerleader for this process.” McCaskill noted that other media and advertising players declined to participate.
“Take green coffee bean extract,” Oz continued. (The hearing's cold open was actually a 2012 clip from The Dr. Oz Show in which Oz endorsed the extract’s powers effusively, saying, "When turned into a supplement, this miracle pill can burn fat fast for anyone who wants to lose weight. It’s very exciting, and it’s breaking news … The coffee bean, in its purest, raw form, may hold the secret to weight loss that you’ve been waiting for!")
“I'm not going to argue it would pass FDA muster if it were a drug seeking approval,” Oz said in a tone strikingly contrasted to his TV segment, “but, among the natural products out there, this is a product that has several clinical trials.”
McCaskill called him on that claim. “The only one I know is 16 people in India, paid for by the company that was, in fact, written up by somebody who was being paid by the company producing it.”
“I have five papers, plus a series of basic science papers on it as well,” Oz said, literally holding a stack of what appeared to be journal articles over his head. He also said that he never takes money for endorsements on the show.
“We could spend a lot of time arguing the merits of whether coffee bean extract is worth trying or not,” Oz said—downgrading his appraisal from miraculous to “worth trying”—before changing the subject away from the bean extract, toward the elusive nature of scientific truth. “Many of the things we argue that you do with regard to your diet are likewise criticizable. Should you be on a low-fat diet, a low-carb diet? I spent a good part of my career recommending that folks have a low-fat diet. We have come full circle and no longer recommend that. It wasn't working for our patients. It is remarkably complex, as you know, to figure out what works for a dietary program.”
Oz cited complexity and, in the next breath, a need for simplicity in health messages.
“Well then why would you say that something is a miracle in a bottle?” McCaskill asked.
“My job, I feel, on the show is to be a cheerleader for the audience,” Oz spoke quickly again, moving into platitudes but never appearing disingenuous. “When they don’t think they have hope, when they don't think they can make it happen, I look everywhere, including in alternative healing traditions, for any evidence that might be supportive to them. To get folks to realize there are different ways they could rethink their future. That their best years aren't behind them. They are in front of them. They actually can lose weight. I actually do personally believe in the items I talk about in the show. I passionately study them. I recognize oftentimes they don't have the scientific muster to present as fact, but nevertheless, I would give my audience the advice I give my family."
“The scientific community is almost monolithic against you in terms of the efficacy of those three products that you called miracles,” McCaskill said. “When you call a product a miracle, and it's something you can buy, and it's something that gives people false hope, I just don't understand why you need to go there.”