March 2, 2010

When I first heard of this supplement years ago, I had hoped that it would fade away after a brief period in the limelight. After the FTC successfully sued Airborne for false advertising in 2008 (winning a total of $30 million for customers), I thought the matter was settled. Unfortunately, the company has returned stronger than ever. I saw a commerical on TV the other day and even more to my dismay, when I got a cold recently, a coworker suggested that I take Airborne. I tried explaining to her that it was unproven and probably useless, but she insisted that it “worked” for her. So here we are, but first, some background.


Airborne was invented by an elementary school teacher. Indeed, the website using this as a selling point. Why, I can’t imagine. It goes on to say that it is a drug-free formula. Fantastic, I can pretty much stop the post right here. If there are no active ingredients, then it doesn’t have any pharmacological effect. They are just short of admitting this product does nothing. Aiborne manages to salvage possible utility from the jaws of uselessness with the questionable claim that it “boosts” your immune system.

What’s in it?:

The website claims that its special blends of vitamins and minerals has been shown to support the immune system in scientific studies. Yet, they supply no references for these studies. This makes my job a little more difficult. The website lists Zinc, Ginger, Echinacea, Vitamins A, C, and E, Selenium, Manganese, Magnesium, some sketchy magical “herbal blend”, Riboflavin, and Amino Acids as the ingredients. That is a long list of what is essentially a multivitamin. Let’s look a big deeper…The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (part of the National Institutes of Health) conducted a study of 437 adults and found no effect of Echinacea more than placebo. One down, 12 to go!

Vitamins A, C, E, Zinc, Manganese, Magnesium, and Riboflavin all play important biochemical roles in the body and should be part of a healthy, balanced diet. If for some reason you are not getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet, then you should take a far cheaper multivitamin. So yes, these products boost your immune system, but only in the sense that a deficiency in them leads to a depressed immune system. Once your body uses all the Vitamin C it can handle (approximately the amount you should already have in your diet or from a multivitamin), then you just excrete the rest in your urine. In fact, the myth that vitamin C will help you fight off a cold has been pretty well debunked. Furthermore, Airborne uses the faulty logic that a lot of a good thing must be a great thing. Megadosing of Vitamin C has side effects such as diarrhea. Adding diarrhea to my list of cold symptoms without any resolution of my cold symptoms does not sound very fun.

A quick search showed no evidence either way for Ginger. And the amino acids? I think they just added those to sound smart. Amino acid is one of those terms that people love to toss around. A normal person gets their amino acids from eating protein (any protein: milk, meat, beans, wheat, etc.). I fail to see how Airborne can boost your immune system by adding amino acids. Of course, I fail to see how Airborne can boost your immune system period.

Dubious Practices:

Finally, I come to my favorite part. This is where Airborne gets very dodgy. Apparently, a press release for the company once claimed that the product would get rid of a cold within an hour. Advertisements encouraged people to take Airborne at the first sign of a cold. The company later retracted this cold-cure claim and switched to the weasely “immune booster” claim–supported by a double blind, placebo controlled study, no less!

ABC News’ excellent expose revealed that the company hired to do the clinical trial was a 2-man business started up purely to do the Airborne study. No doctors, scientists or actual research. All mention of this study is now removed from the Airborne website. “We found that it confused consumers,” Donahue said. “Consumers are really not scientifically minded enough to be able to understand a clinical study.” I died laughing at that. Way to insult your customers Airborne. They’re too stupid to understand possible fraud? I do not think so.

One last point that I enjoyed: the man who conducted the disappearing study claimed to have lots of clinical trial experience and an undergraduate degree from Indiana University. ABC News revealed that he had never graduated from Indiana.


Airborne is more or less an expensive multivitamin. It is almost definitely useless for any sort of acute treatment of the common cold or flu-like symptoms. What’s the harm? You lose $6.99 on a worthless treatment. It is not so much the money that bothers me, but the very affront to science and common sense that this company respresents. They literally flaunt the pseudoscience in our faces and people keep buying this ridiculous product. The only shred of evidence that the CEO can provide is that it “works” for 40,000 people who wrote testimonials in to the company. Argumentum ad populum is a logical fallacy. Just because a lot of people like it does not make it legitimate. Furthermore, the concept that it worked for them means nothing more to me than the placebo effect. If you want to buy it, fine, but you’re a moron (according to the CEO who says you can’t interpret scientific literature). Challenge Ms. Donahue’s words and read the literature. I do not think you will ever buy Airborne again.


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