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Resveratrol marketers try to dazzle with marquee names

Harvard University, Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters and medical professionals are cited by supplement makers as giving their stamp of approval. But that image doesn't match reality.

July 13, 2009|Melissa Healy

The pitches for resveratrol are as ubiquitous as they are dazzling.

Fire up a search engine for red wine, resveratrol or longevity, and the entreaties of supplement makers will line your screen, blinking promises of weight loss, wrinkle reduction, greater vitality and -- yes -- even "increased erection hardness . . . sexual sensitivity, pleasure and ejaculatory volume."

But that's not all. Websites selling resveratrol supplements routinely feature videos and links to Harvard University researchers, talk show host Oprah Winfrey and her medical advisor Dr. Mehmet Oz, and ABC's Barbara Walters in a white lab coat (in fact, many white-coated professionals are typically shown, peering into microscopes). Harvard Medical School is quoted, movie-blurb-style, as calling resveratrol "the biggest medical discovery since antibiotics!"

Although Oz did appear on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" with concentrated resveratrol capsules in his hand and tell viewers they "might want to try it out," Winfrey and Oz have insisted they endorse no products; Walters' segment on resveratrol was produced by ABC's news division; and Harvard Medical School has issued no such assessment. But such references -- posted on or an easy click away from many resveratrol pitches -- lend the weight of authority to resveratrol's potential.

Testimonials from patients diagnosed with cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and arthritis testify to the rejuvenating powers of resveratrol supplementation, bolstering the suggestion that resveratrol heals.

Many come from physicians, including Dr. Joseph Maroon, a 69-year-old triathlete and beloved neurosurgeon to the Pittsburgh Steelers football team.

"I take it, and I can tell you that most of the investigators I know in this field take it," Maroon said in an interview.

It is an image of resveratrol consumers -- as an elite group of earlier-adopters who know something others don't -- that the makers of resveratrol supplements like to foster.

"They generally have PhDs or are lawyers and have done their research," says Anthony Loera, a Florida-based entrepreneur who started RevGenetics, in January 2007, and sells one of the highest-dosage forms of resveratrol -- a full-gram capsule. "They delve into almost every study on resveratrol."

For scientists and medical professionals, who should know better, to become pitchmen for resveratrol at this stage "is very tempting but it's also very wrong," says Rafael de Cabo, a National Institute on Aging investigator who has co-written most of the pioneering studies on resveratrol.

"Right now, everything we have on resveratrol looks fantastic, looks phenomenal," says De Cabo. But still, he adds, "the truth is the truth: I don't know what would be a proper dose, what you should take it for, or when you should start taking it."

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melissa.healy@latimes.com

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