On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Don’t Be Misled by ‘Squiggle Words’

DEAR DR. BLONZ: Weight loss products typically promise wonderful things and many offer free trials, although the “shipping and handling” are there to recover costs. I have replayed some of the ads and detected “squiggle” words that didn’t really promise anything -- only saying what might occur to some people. Who is in charge of what can be said in these advertisements? -- M.Q. Scottsdale, Arizona

DEAR M.Q.: We are affected not only by what is said, but in the way a concept is communicated. Certain words or phrases function as qualifiers. Think of it as the difference between saying “A causes B” and “A may cause B.” The responsibility falls on the listener (or reader) to interpret what’s going on. When strung together with skill, these types of statements can bring forth an aura of belief that appears as solid as truth.

This is the bread and butter of advertising, law and science, as well as politics. One gets to speak of possibilities without addressing probabilities. That seed of potential is planted, a clever context provided, and the listener is lured into the land of certainty. Those with such skills find work in sales, politics and public relations.

Examples of “squiggle” words and phrases include: may, could, might, has been known to, possibly, chance, potentially, conceivably, plausible, seem to, we believe, in my opinion, and feasible. All of these communicate some level of likelihood without citing objective evidence.

In my experience, I have seen dubious claims associated with substances and devices. But just because a product or method is unproven does not mean it’s false; it only signifies that it has not been tested. The key is what follows: An objective scientist will test the concept, while those of a lesser stripe go directly to the public to make money, making use of “squiggle words” to state their case. The consuming public gets caught in the middle, being forced to play the game of “Who do you trust?”

It is an unfortunate fact of human nature that when we want something to be true (or false), and we hear information that supports that desire, we tend to let down our guard and welcome the information. I always encourage consumers to be alert and informed. In my experience, people tend to have more knowledge and be more critical when they go to purchase an automobile or major appliance than when it comes to matters that relate to their health. It certainly doesn’t have to be that way.

As individuals choosing commercial products, we are the ultimate decision makers. But luckily, there are agencies that act on our behalf and help us make informed decisions. On the national level, we have the Federal Trade Commission (tinyurl.com/jn2f74h), and on the state level, we have our attorneys general, who are charged with overseeing misleading advertising claims in the media and on product labels and websites. Private attorneys bring cases to represent classes of individuals victimized by questionable promotional claims.

As effective as these consumer protection efforts can be, the overflow of dubious advertisements in our newspapers, online, on the air, and flooding into our email accounts means we are forced to serve as the ultimate protectors of our best interests.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.