Dishing the dirt on detox | Jay Rayner

A self-confessed glutton, Jay Rayner has always been wary of the January detox. But after talking to experts and sampling some of the products, hes discovered the truth is even worse than he imagined

Sunday afternoon in the darkest days of early January and I am sitting on the sofa, my face caked in a mixture of clay mined from deep below the Atlas mountains and organic rosewater from the Dades Valley. My cheeks and brows are a mess of coagulating geography. I am giving myself a home facial, courtesy of Facetox, a product originating from Leeds which promises to Extract, Pull & Detoxify. The box says its cruelty free, but doing this to myself feels rather less so.

In my hand is a steaming mug of Dr Stuarts Liver Detox naturally caffeine-free tea, containing dandelion root, centaury herb and milk thistle. The tea promises to get it out your system without saying exactly what it might be. Before applying the mask I drank a glass of lemonade the colour of an outflow from a flooded coal mine. It is produced by Press London, is 0.05% activated charcoal and has the word detox on the label.

The face mask starts drying out, pulling my skin taut underneath. I begin to feel a bit of an arse, because the one thing all these products apparently claim to do detoxify me, purge me of poisons is the one thing they cannot do. Yes, I may have indulged over Christmas: drunk deep, eaten broadly, hit the sugars and the fats like a train ramming the buffers. But I know nothing with the word detox on the label will mitigate any of it.

The whole idea does make me smile, says Dr Donal ODonoghue, professor of renal medicine at Manchester University and president of the Renal Association, because it is cobblers. There is nothing like this which will improve your bodys detoxification system.

Nor does there need to be because of what butchers would call our offal, and Ill call our kidneys and liver these organs have that whole detox business covered for us. The liver processes what we put into ourselves. The kidneys then filter it out. There is nothing we can eat which will improve liver and kidney function, says Dimple Thakrar, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. As long as you are eating a normal, balanced diet your body will do exactly what it needs to do. Without our liver and kidneys we would die of poisoning, she says. The whole notion of detox is not merely redundant but, to put it in technical terms, a dumb-ass symptom of a deep well of scientific illiteracy which enables sane people to believe whatever unsubstantiated, anti-modern, counter-intuitive, make-it-up-as-we-go-along, bottom-feeding blather thats shoved in front of us.

Mud, glorious mud: Jay Rayner tries a facemask which, the packet says, will extract, pull and detoxify

And yet the myth of the January detox endures. Cosmetics companies spew forth literature on products they promise will purge your skin of all the poisons they have absorbed merely by living in the 21st century. Juice companies offer detoxifying cleanses. You want your liver to be as shiny and fresh as a newborns? Someone somewhere believes they have a product for that. Reputable newspapers OK, the Daily Mirror fill their pages with hokum and woo about the need to re-alkalise your system by eating plant algaes which help your body detoxify quickly.

The obvious response is to mutter a fool and their money and move on. Certainly, purifying yourself is a quick way to cleanse your wallet of money. That Facetox pack costs 24.99 for seven masks and, according to Dr Tamara Griffiths of the British Association of Dermatologists, will not detoxify you at all. Nothing applied to the skin will do that. It may take off some dead skin cells, but thats not really the same thing, she says. The tea is 4.40 a box. The activated charcoal lemonade retails at 6 for 330ml.

The odd face mask or drink of tea isnt going to do you any harm, but there can be a darker side to it if you go for a whole regime and choose the wrong one. This month a paper in the British Medical Journal reported the recent case of a 47-year-old woman admitted to hospital, suffering from seizures brought on by low sodium levels in her blood. She had been undergoing a herbal medication detox, alongside drinking vast amounts of water, green tea and sage. She recovered entirely once her sodium levels were returned to normal, but otherwise might indeed have been cleansed, if only from the face of the earth. The paper reported another case of a man who experienced fits after undertaking a similar regime.

It frustrates me when people bang on about detox, says Thakrar, because it can actually cause harm. The evidence suggests that by following a so-called detox, especially ones involving fasting, you can damage liver enzyme activity and therefore damage your bodys ability to detoxify itself. Likewise, she says, reducing calories for the short term can reduce your metabolic rate and you can end up putting on more weight in the long term.

I show her literature from a company offering tailor-made juice-cleanse packages delivered to your door for hundreds of pounds which they say will detoxify your body and reset your metabolism. They proclaim celebrity endorsements from the likes of Madonna, Georgia May Jagger and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Theres no evidence to back up any of the claims, Thakrar says. Theyre nonsensical. I suppose the positive is that youd get a lot of fruit and vegetables, but were adults and we have teeth. We dont need our food juiced. Plus, you could end up consuming enormous amounts of sugar. Wheres the protein? Wheres the calcium?

You would think there would be laws covering this sort of thing, and there are. Any health claims made for food or cosmetics have to be backed up by scientifically rigorous research which is then assessed, since 2007, by the relevant European Union body. In the case of food it is the European Food Safety Agency. Applications for a valid claim of a detoxifying effect have been made for a dozen foodstuffs, including grapefruit, seaweed and a rice vinegar extract. All have been refused. But, as Im told by David Pickering of the Trading Standards Institute, which has responsibility for messages on packaging: It is very hard to police the health-claims market, not least in the age of the internet when products might be coming in from places where regulation is different.

Talking to the companies in this country responsible for detox products and their marketing is not always a rewarding experience. In a south London branch of Boots I find racks of multi-vitamins. While none of these say they rid your body of poisons, the sign above the shelves does say Detox. Boots tells me it was a mistake, and left over from an installation put up in 2007 and would be taken down immediately. I ask the manufacturer of Dr Stuarts Liver Detox tea, based in Storrington, West Sussex, how it detoxifies the liver and what research they have to back up the message that it could get it out your system. Arran Elliott of Dr Stuarts replies: We have decided to abstain from commenting on this matter. Oh.

Its tricky to work out when detox became a necessary cure for lifestyle rather than genuine poisoning. Illustration: Eva Bee

Ed Foy of Press London, which manufacturers the activated charcoal lemonade, is more forthcoming. First, we dont make direct claims about their impact on a persons body, he tells me by email. As we know this would put us into a category of therapeutic regulation and would be beyond our remit as a consumer food company. Indeed it would, though he goes on to point out that charcoal is used in other clinical detoxifying processes. Perhaps, but is that any excuse for turning out a lemonade which looks like pond water?

As to the justification for putting the word detox on the bottle, this is apparently a massive category error on my part. Apparently and its worth reading this explanation in full I was confusing the publics vernacular use of detox in common parlance and the medical term detoxification. Today, if someone says I am doing a January detox they mean that they are cutting out negative factors in their consumption habits, such as alcohol, smoking and foods rich in sugar, fat or salt. Therefore when we talk about detox to a consumer the consumer understands we are promoting the preferential consumption of healthier products rather than harmful ones and not referring specifically to the process of detoxification by the liver and or kidneys.

Say what? This is my mistake? The fact that detox is short for detoxification and that, in every dictionary the word is defined as variations on the removal of poisons from the body has nothing to do with it? I make myself another cup of Dr Stuarts Liver Detox tea to see if that will calm me down. It doesnt. I study a pack of cleansing detox foot pads made in China for Organic Guru. You bandage them to your feet while you sleep and apparently the active ingredients vinegar, plant powder and something called minus ion work wonders. The main functions according to the pack are detoxification beauty, clear physical beauty, stimulate metabolism, enhance immune function. Not bad for 6.99. If it wasnt utter tosh.

Detoxification does, of course, have a medical meaning, involving treatments for narcotic addiction or overdose. It is, therefore, tricky to work out when detox became seen as a necessary cure for lifestyle rather than genuine poisoning. However, according to Dr Alun Withey, historian of medicine at Exeter University, it is less a modern phenomenon than a notion that reaches back to our pre-pharmacological past. There is a striking similarity between modern media ideas of detox and 17th-century versions of medical treatments to drive out the bad things, he says. The literature of the period, including that by renowned herbalist Thomas Culpeper, is full of remedies against a surfeit, he says. Culpeper in turn recycles a lot of stuff thats centuries old about restoring the body to balance.

Judy Swift, associate professor of behavioural nutrition at Nottingham University, also sees a link with the past. If you go back to the early Christian period there is the strong idea that the pleasure food gives you is a temptation and we rise above these things because we are not animals. We prove our moral worth by not doing it. Modern notions of detox echo all this. However, she says, there is also very much a link to modern health policy. While the medical fraternity may laugh in the face of detox products, she points out that government health advice eat five portions of fruit and veg a day, avoid certain fats, cut out the fizzy drinks is hardly dissimilar. The message of that advice, she says, is that to be healthy you have to work at it. It requires denial. It has to be medicalised. It has to be hard won. Which sounds very much like a juice cleanse or gargling with sooty lemonade.

After I wash off my clay detoxifying face mask, I study my skin. It is a bit pink in places, but otherwise there is no difference from before, which makes sense given my skin wasnt poisoned in the first place. It merely serves to highlight the sadness of people landing themselves in A&E with seizures as a result of an ill-judged detox they thought was good for them. I run myself a bath and pour in bright orange granules of Total Detox Bath Potion, the colour of childrens sweets. Made by a company called Ancient Wisdom, they are apparently infused with potent aromatic oils and cost 4.74 a pack. They give the water a yellowish tinge, like someone has peed in it. I settle back and wait for the poisons to dissipate from my body. Nothing happens.

Still, its a nice bath.

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