A Science Writer Reads the SkyMall Catalog

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and, on one recent trip, I ran out of things to read. I was forced to resort to passing my flight time flipping through the SkyMall catalog.

It had been a while–years, actually–since I’d opened SkyMall, and I had utterly forgotten how full of pseudoscience it was. For instance, consider the following listing for “The Big Pitcher:”

“Drink to Your Health With the Big Pitcher!

“Oxygen in the blood stream is a cleanser that helps rid your body of waste and toxins due to lifestyles that include lots of stress, processed food, impure air and over-treated water. The Big Pitcher helps to solve this problem by raising the level of oxygen in any water (tap or bottled) from the typical 2 parts per million to 11 parts per million, while improving taste and costing only about $5 per year to operate! Solids and gases (such as chlorine, radon and sulfur) are removed and harmful bacteria are neutralized, while health-improving oxygen is added to help provide the energy to help your digestive and immune systems operate at peak performance levels.”

Let’s put aside the assertion that this thing–which costs $250, by the way–purifies your water, which it may well do, and examine the oxygen claim for a minute.

The idea has so many problems that I almost don’t know where to begin. First, oxygen is not very soluble in water; you can’t dissolve very much of it in water, and the best way to do so is under pressure. But as soon as the pressure is released (by, say, breaking the seal on a bottle of water), much of the oxygen will escape. Even if some remains in the water when you gulp it down, it’s unlikely to matter–by and large, the body does not absorb oxygen through the digestive tract. And because the blood of healthy people is already almost completely saturated with oxygen–thanks to, you know, breathing–any tiny amount of extra oxygen that does happen to make it into the bloodstream from the digestive track would hardly be noticeable to the body.

As one set of researchers who studied–and refuted–the claims that super-oxygenated water could boost exercise performance put it:

…[A] single breath of air contains more O2 than a bottle of oxygenated water. Given that hemoglobin is already nearly saturated with O2 during air breathing, and that only a small amount of additional O2 can be dissolved in plasma, it is not surprising that oxygenated water did not improve maximal exercise performance.

Or, check out this damning excerpt from the British Medical Journal:

A decade or so ago, the idea arose that athletes might gain a competitive edge by drinking water that contained extra dissolved oxygen (O2). The notion stems from observations that O 2 breathing during exercise enhances athletic performance, but the connection of O2 breathing during exercise with drinking “hyperoxygenated” water before exercise conflates physics and physiology in a struthonian visit to placebo land.

Bottom line: Want some extra oxygen? Try taking some deep breaths. Bonus: It’s free. (If you want more information on super-oxygenated water–and its inability to do much at all–check out some of these papers.)

Or, if that’s not enough woo for you, check out the Aculife Therapist Deluxe, some sort of pulsing, electronic acupuncture gadget. The little machine comes complete with a map of just what spot to zap on your palm for each of your physical ailments and a totally bizarre reference to Otzi the Iceman.

Images: SkyMall

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