Snake Oil version 2

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

We’ve updated SnakeOil, our interactive “balloon race” visualization of the scientific evidence for over 100 nutritional supplements.

This Flash app coded by the awesome Andy Perkins is generated from the data in this spreadsheet: – lovingly curated by researcher Miriam Quick.

What Have We Done?

We’ve revised the data from top to bottom. That included processing over 300 emails from visitors who offered evidence, fresh studies and often angry criticism of our ratings. People invested in Fish Oil & Omega 3? Chill out! (Maybe try smoking some of that fish oil?)

We’ve also factored in a bunch of new studies from the last year. Revised our categories. And added a series of new supplements including: chromium, rhodiola rosea L., grape seed extract, coconut oil and melatonin.

We also worked with the Cochrane Institute to help improve our library searches and study sources.

See exactly what’s changed in our change log.
(Note: the still image version is still using old data as I haven’t had time to update it yet.)

SnakeOil Analytics

We’ve had analytics running on the app over the last 6 months. That’s allowed us to track the exact way people use the viz and which supps they explore.

• visitors: 750,000
• visitors who interacted: 220,000 (30%)
• most popular filter (by a long way): sex (followed by cancer, anti-viral and mental health)
• most popular supplements (above the worth-it-line): green tea, fish oil, vitamin D, St John’s wort, probiotics
• most popular supplements (below the worth-it-line): devil’s claw, L-lysine, L-carnitine, lutein, CoQ10, goji (hmmm, lot of body-building supps there)

Help Us Improve This

As ever, if you see a good, solid randomized-controlled trial or meta-study, or an error in our data – or just want to rag us for rating Fish Oil so low, do get in touch or comment below!

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Show Comments ( )

  • Aaron Slepkov

    Has Reservatrol, which in the Google document is listed as a “0″ for evidence been downgraded as a result of the findings of massive fraud in Dr. Dipak Das’ (UConn) work, or was Reservatrol at the “no evidence” since the chart’s creation? I’m curious.

  • Meridian Hutchins

    Would love to see y’all add ‘infertility supplements’ as a category. Things like pomegranate, green tea, vitex, vitamin-E, etc. There are so many people willing to do almost anything to get pregnant, including spending lots of money on snake-oil products.

  • Tom Whitmore

    I’m confused. Antioxidants show up as a positive for general health, with the specific in the bubble of “infertility in men” — but it doesn’t show up as a positive in “Men’s health”. This makes me curious about what criteria were actually used for sorting the information bubbles, as infertility is very clearly an aspect of health and it’s particularly tied to men in that display bubble.

    • wilheru

      I was wandering the same thing. I think it was overlooked when the categories ‘Women’ and ‘Men’ were added.

  • MBJ

    Would love to see soluble fibers (psyllium, etc).

  • Kevin

    Hello. Thank you so very much for taking the time to produce this presentation for all to use. I really like it and the principles behind it. I am just curious if there are still plans to make any updates/changes anymore? I havent seen you reply in a while on here. Regardless, thanks for your time and have a wonderful day!

  • Ben Curly

    Hello. Is this project still alive? If so I’d like to see the bee pollen added to the chart. I’ve seen a lot of conflicting information about it, and would like to know what are the real benefits of taking it. Thanks in advance.

  • Le

    Love this chart. I regularly refer to it and the spreadsheet.

    Please consider adding chlorella

  • Rick Rodziewicz

    How about Astragalus in prevention of D N A damage. Seems to be a lot of chatter around the net about this. Any way to get this one measured ?



  • david

    Anti-oxidants appear in two places/levels – should this be?

  • http://HealthForensics dr gayle

    This kind of misinformation always interests me, perhaps because I have been studying and using natural remedies for over 50 years. I find it interesting too that PubMed refuses to index the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine and other publications that give more accurate information on essential oils (how I cured my over exposure to black mold), herbs and vitamins. If you rely only on mainstream work then you are as much of a lineal thinker as these “researchers” who do junque science. I always like the vitamin E studies that end stating that it does not work and find out the dose is too low or the product was synthetic. Vitamin E is an O2 carrier that takes oxygen across the alveolar membrane if you use the correct kind and take enough. It is like the 1600-2000 mg of E that prevents neuropathy in people with diabetes but you don’t hear about it unless you talk to those of us who know the history and the available documentation. And then there is the Green tea link to pancreatic cancer that is overlooked.
    If you want fertility help, natural care does work.

    • DMG

      Dr. Gayle’s kind of misinformation always interests me, perhaps because if you want unbiased information about natural products, you probably should ask a scientist, not someone who makes their living selling people natural products.

      Seriously, if this “Dr” thinks his or her hearsay is more authoritative than the mass of scientific literature linked above, then… well, at least we know that he or she is a good authority in herbs that can be smoked. ;)

  • Jotto999

    Oh darn. My father is taking Glucosamine for his arthritis, apparently he’s wasting his money :-o

  • Troglodyte

    Super cool. What a great summary. If you guys get another chance to update it, I for one, would be both curious and grateful.

  • Vampyrecat

    1. I am curious about calcium magnesium zinc or just magnesium for muscle cramps. I get really painful cramps in my calves and feet from time to time, usually in the middle of the night, and if I start taking cal mag zinc it seems to help but I could just as easily see this being a placebo effect.
    2. Similarly, I am surprised to see Vitamin D below the “worth it” line for mood, but again it could just be a placebo effect.
    3. Maybe I missed it, but is Iron helpful for female vegetarians who feel fatigue and lack of alertness?

    • Shylo 2020

      The combination of calcium and magnesium has relieved my muscle cramps over night as well. I’ve tried numerous other remedies and nothing works for me like calcium and magnesium together. II’d dismiss the idea that somehow this is a placebo situation. I was wondering, however, if I was the only one using this combo and it is affirming to me that others have also found this effective.

      I’d like to see the Calcium/magnesium combo included in an updated chart.

  • Cindy Crawford

    This is absolutely brilliant. We conduct systematic reviews in the area of integrative medicine and would like to be able to present our information in this fashion. do you offer that to outside entities or consult with organizations?

  • Davidd

    St. John’s wort should be higher. The very link you gave says its as effective as standard antidepressants with less side effects for moderate/mild depression.

  • Sean T.

    I love (and I mean LOVE) this graphic, well done.

    I have an idea for you. Could you make it so that the known side-effects of those various supplements which have them are displayed somewhere? Helping to get knowledge out there on how supplements/natural remedies have side-effects like normal drugs would be a great public service.

    • JeffL

      I want to second Sean’s point. I so love this graphic, but it does seem to only give information about the benefits, thereby leaving the risk-benefit analysis almost once sided.

      Thanks for an amazing visualization!

  • Heather

    very interested to see where ecklonia cava (ECE) would fall!

  • Ludwig


    If you could make it slightly less bouncy, it would be much easier on the eyes.


  • RMC
  • Karl

    Really good chart but where is THC on the list?, surely that with all its medicinal benefits it has earned its place on there.

  • Lukasz

    You really SHOULD rewrite it in HTML5 – it would be less CPU heavy, and more ergonomic/easier to read on new iPad with retina. Not only that, we could search for words as usual – CTRL+F. You are missing one supplement that is probably better than NAC. It’s… Astaxanthin. Really. I’m very curious about it.

  • Aj

    Beautiful and extremely useful! I refer to it regularly.
    Shame the last update is more than a year back. Would love for this to be alive again.

    thanks and keep up the great work!

  • Ryan Taylor

    :P There’s very good evidence that magnesium taken orally treats magnesium deficiency. Derp, obviously. The USDA estimates that 53% of Americans don’t get an RDA of magnesium. Another study puts that number closer to 68% (King et al. 2005). The consequences of magnesium deficiency are fairly well documented.

  • HairyFotr

    Please update and expand this infographic once in a while… Supplements are still a wild west, and a lot of people are losing their money and their health because of it. This kind of visualization could improve that if it were complete and current enough.

    Thanks for your work so far.

    • Dan, Editor

      Hi, thanks for the comment. We’re working on some updates right now, we appreciate the importance of the subject!


      • patrick dicaprio

        how does the right-to-left axis work? does it have any significance?

        • Dan, Editor

          Nope, the only significance of x-axis is that the bubbles order themselves from a-z along it.


  • Timar

    A nice graphic – but this approach has a serious problem. There is no objectively assessable degree of evidence which could be applied to all of the avaiable studies in such a linear fashion. Different approaches, study designs, etc. give a very different quality of evidence. The best example in this graph is the “promising” grade of evidence for omega-6 fatty acids in heart health. It comes from a highly controversial paper from the AHA which many scientists have harshly critizied as flawed and driven by scientific dogma rather than evidence. In fact, much of the evidence points to the exact opposite direction: omega 6 fatty acids via the eicosanoids pathway contribute to the inflammation of arteries and thus promote(!) heart disease, despite of lowering LDL colesterol, which was the only (poor) risk factor for heart disease taken into account by the AHA study.

  • Doug

    This is a great collection of data. In looking at this, I came across studies of Passionflower on the ncbi website for general anxiety. This seems like something to be included in an update.

    • Dan, Editor

      Thanks Doug, we’ll look into it. Appreciate you taking the time to comment!


  • mossyND

    Science is a tool to be used to help try and understand the world around us. It is not infallible and it does not cover all the bases. Many of the natural health products listed here have been used effectively by trained Professionals -Licensed Naturopathic Doctors, for many years. Science just hasn’t caught up yet. These types of studies are certainly worth considering, but they are not the only evidence available.

  • Anonymous

    Any studies on coffee?

  • John

    Since green/black tea is in the chart how about adding coffee? It’s been quite the hot health topic the past few years at least. Diabetes, cancer, fibrosis, heart diseases, weight loss, alzheimer’s, parkinson’s, depression, MS… to name a few topics.

  • Sean McCauliff

    One of the Omega-3 studies used in this infographic does not meet the criteria of the infographic as it was only performed on children ages 8-10. See the title of your infographic “…showing tangible human health benefits when taken orally by an –> adult

  • http://PetResearch Andrew

    Requesting objective info on Natural Eggshell Membrane as a potential competitor to glucosamine.

    Here’s the official source:

  • Cherry

    Puree Aloe Vera works works really well for skin burning due to radiation for cancer treatment.

  • Linzi A’Fortieri

    Possible update for MSM and Chondroitin PMID: 22977594 [PubMed] PMCID: PMC3440771

  • Miss Street

    please add Holy Basil

  • Annie

    Thank you for the amazing synthesis of data!

    When I first started studying integrative medicine there was very little research to draw upon, and mainly clinical experience based on conventional wisdom and cumulative anecdotal evidence (over hundreds of years) were the best we could draw upon. Still today there is a very long way to go in terms of having the quantity and quality of RCT’s for non-pharmaceutical products.

    However, although a staunch supporter of the move of professional ‘natural medicine’ practitioners becoming evidence based, I acknowledge the limitations that the standard RCT format has in identifying the effectiveness of the natural medicines they are trialling.
    1. Due to the multifactorial origins of disease processes. Eg: Does Iron help everyone with fatigue? Or just fatigue that is the result of Iron-deficiency anaemia? Does Omega-3 help all kids with ADHD? Or just a subgroup with a fatty acid imbalance? As natural medicine seeks to find the origin of the disease, it can find many causes for one symptom or disease. Pharmaceuticals, on the other hand find interventions that have a positive effect in as large a group as possible – usually treating the symptoms of the condition, as opposed to the cause. Although they may get broader results, the disease process underlying the medication doesn’t go away, and the broader consequences of the disease process gradually appear.
    2. Studies tend to test these products in isolation, without looking at the compound effect of multiple products or whole products: Eg: testing something extracted from a whole food or a whole plant – or testing the combination of products tradtionally used together – Eg: in Chinese medicine.
    3. Poorly designed studies, only visible to the professional eye. Eg: using the wrong species of Echinacea to study the effect on the immune system. Or treating all plants as equals, without looking at the constituent profile of the individual plants. (Eg: Tribulus grown in bulgaria vs Tribulus grown in other parts of the world – very different chemical compositions, and therefore, clinical effects). And of course, the classic – trialling substances at the wrong dose (sub-effective doses) or for the wrong condition, to discredit the substance.
    4. Tight regulation of supplements. In some countries, like Australia, things like red yeast rice extract have actually had all the ‘active ingredient’ removed (as it is too similar to Lipitor) – so although studies may have supported its use for cholesterol, the product on the shelf is impotent in this aspect. So then people use it, get no result, and cry ‘snake oil’.

    However, despite these reservations I enjoyed the graphic and prompted me to revisit the more updated research for several supplements that I haven’t looked at in a while! Keep up the great work and promotion of evidence based medicine.

    Choosing the right supplements and complementary medicines requires skill and detailed case analysis, the right blood tests, checking for drug interactions, and thorough understanding of both western and complementary approaches to disease – people self-diagnosing and buying fad products over the internet are likely to do their dough trying product after product. See a professional- that is degree trained and has substantial supervised clinical practice, and you’re sure to have a better result.

  • Dan Pearson

    It would be interesting to have an axis for positive effects or strength of effects. I.e. xyz treatment has a weak effect, but there’s strong evidence for it. Or the evidence is strong that the of a net adverse health effect (as with collloidal silver).

  • Sandy
  • JeffL

    A general question: I think (but am not sure) that some of the studies you are using look at the presence of these micronutrients in the diet and therefore do not look at them as supplements.

    Correlating how much of Vitamin XX is in someone’s diet with their health outcomes is quite different than studying whether taking supplements of Vitamin XX has any health impact.

    Put another way: If you are deficient in a certain vitamin… you should take supplements! But if your diet gives you sufficient amounts of that vitamin, supplements may not help or may even do harm.

    I think that, for example, the paper I get to when I click on the Vitamin D bubble has this issue… it is about Vitamin D in the diet, but here it is presented as evidence for taking Vitamin D supplements.

  • eve matteo

    Supposedly, eating curry helps protect from altzeimer’s. Goes under turmeric/curcumin

    google search for the study popped up this article from 2008…