And consumers are interested. Americans spent more than $62 million on detox/cleansing, laxative and weight-loss teas in retail outlets in the past year, according to Chicago-based SPINS, a market research firm that tracks data on natural and organic products.
But do these trendy teas — with such names as BooTea, Flat Tummy Tea, Lyfe Tea, Organic Skinny Natural Tea and Skinny Fit Tea, to name just a few — work as claimed? More important, is this a safe practice?
Research is limited, but here’s what we know so far.
What's in that tea?
Depending on the product, a detox tea may contain ingredients such as burdock root, dandelion root, cinnamon, ginger, licorice or milk thistle — often along with regular caffeinated tea.
But most have certain ingredients in common, which are touted to help with weight loss: stimulants including guarana, which some research suggests may contain up to four times the amount of caffeine in coffee, and laxatives such as senna or senna leaf, approved as an over-the-counter medication by the Food and Drug Administration for constipation.
Checking the teatox claims
What can the ingredients in a teatox do to help you shed pounds?
First, consider that regular tea — green, black, white or oolong — has long been said to have some weight-loss benefits. As with water or coffee, drinking any kind of fluid may help you feel temporarily fuller, so you may eat a little less. But that strategy “really has not proven to be terribly useful,” says David Seres, an associate professor of medicine at the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center and a member of Consumer Reports’ medical advisory board.
“There is evidence that replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with no-calorie beverages like tea helps reduce calorie intake and weight,” Hultin adds.
The caffeine in regular tea may help to curb hunger and boost metabolism slightly, though these haven’t been shown to lead to significant weight loss, Hultin says.
But the higher amounts of caffeine you may get in a teatox probably won’t add any weight-loss benefit, Seres says.
When it comes to the laxatives and diuretics in many teatoxes — which speed up the elimination of stool and urine during digestion — they can help to temporarily lower the number on the scale.
But that lower number won’t stay down, Seres says. “As soon as you drink enough to be properly hydrated, your weight will be identical to what it was.”
One issue of concern for those considering a teatox is that the ingredients in the brews may interact with each other in a negative way and with some common medications the user might be taking, Hultin says.
Overdoing some teatox ingredients may also be problematic. Stimulants such as caffeine, according to the National Institutes of Health, can cause nausea, rapid heartbeat and vomiting when ingested in large amounts.
And overuse of any laxative or diuretic may cause harm. Senna, for instance, has been linked to liver damage when consumed in high doses over long periods of time, according to the government’s LiverTox website.
“Chronic laxative use, in any form, and especially in combination with a diuretic, can lead to blood potassium deficits,” says Marvin M. Lipman, professor emeritus of clinical medicine at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y., and former chief medical adviser for Consumer Reports. “This can cause muscle cramps and weakness, as well as serious heart problems.” Even short-term, senna’s side effects can include abdominal cramps, diarrhea and nausea.
In addition, detox teas are often regulated like dietary supplements — which means much more loosely than FDA-approved medications, which have to prove their safety and efficacy — so consumers can’t always rely on the label for correct information about what’s in the tea. Many studies on dietary supplements, says Pieter Cohen, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a noted supplements researcher, have “found that what is on the label is often not the same as what is actually in the bottle.”
Duffy MacKay, senior vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, an industry group that represents supplement manufacturers, said he couldn’t comment on the safety or efficacy of teatoxes without looking at the ingredients lists of individual products. But he advised against overusing detox teas or other supplements that contain laxatives or diuretics.
And when it comes to weight-loss claims, he adds, “Consumers have to be aware: If it’s too good to be true, you have to be cautious.”
Should you try a teatox?
Still thinking of trying a detox tea? “On a short-term basis, it’s unlikely to cause permanent harm, though there’s possible dehydration and sometimes stomach upset,” says Scott Gavura, a pharmacist at the Science-Based Medicine blog. “My bigger concern is that people are under the assumption they’re doing something that’s beneficial for their body, and it’s not.”
It’s wisest to run the idea by your doctor or pharmacist first to make sure teatox ingredients don’t conflict with any medication — prescription or over-the-counter — that you take. And if you have issues such as abdominal pain, rapid heart rate, dizziness or unusual amounts of weight loss, stop taking the tea and let your doctor know.
Most important, say experts: Don’t rely on a teatox as a way to lose weight and keep pounds off.
“If weight loss is the goal, there are better strategies for long-term success than doing a teatox,” Hultin says. These include reducing your calorie intake if it’s too high, paying attention to proper portion size, focusing on fiber and lean protein, keeping a food diary, and ramping up your physical activity.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Read more at ConsumerReports.org.