By Earl Lane
THE PRODUCT AND WHAT IT'S MARKETED FOR: Emu oil products are advertised on the radio and via the Internet as skin-penetrating ointments which makers say have anti-inflammatory properties that can relieve aches and pains. The oil is rendered from the fat of the emu, a large flightless bird that is native to Australia. A Web site advertising 'Super Strength Blue-Emu' says the product ($19.95 for a 4-ounce jar) 'soothes in 3 to 5 minutes.'
WHAT'S KNOWN: While manufacturers cite anecdotal testimonials on the benefits of emu oil, Robert Nicolosi, a biochemist at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, said there is 'absolutely no published data defending any of these claims' about the efficacy of the oil as an anti- inflammatory agent in humans. Nicolosi said he had found some promising anti-inflammatory activity in tests involving ear tissue of mice. But he said it is premature to make any health claims about emu oil in humans. Dr John H. Klippel, medical director of the Arthritis Foundation, said it 'is unaware of any clinical studies that have demonstrated that ... emu oil relieves the symptoms of arthritis.'
PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH IT: Nicolosi said he is unaware of any reports of adverse events associated with use of the oil, which makers describe as having no known side effects. They say the product is hypoallergenic and does not clog pores.
The oils on the market typically are about 5 percent pure emu oil, Nicolosi said, with a mixture of other ingredients such as aloe vera, menthol, glucosamine and MSM (methyl sulfonyl methane). Nicolosi said his animal studies suggest that 5 percent emu oil is not enough to produce an anti-inflammatory effect.
WHAT'S NEW: In November, the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration cracked down on one seller of emu oil products. Blue Stuff Inc. of Oklahoma City, makers of the heavily advertised Super Blue Stuff and other emu oil products, agreed to a $3 million settlement with the FTC for false and misleading advertising claims, including that one of its products could relieve excruciating sciatic nerve pain due to 'crushed vertebrae.' The FDA also warned the company that its health claims for emu oil were unsubstantiated.
At the time, the company's president, Jack McClung, said in a statement that he had accepted the settlement to avoid 'extraordinary costs and distractions of litigation' but did not admit any wrongdoing.
The company, which had promoted Super Blue Stuff through 30-minute TV infomercials, withdrew the product and now is selling an emu oil formulation called 'Super Blue,' which it describes as 'for temporary relief of minor joint and muscle pain.' It now highlights the pain relieving properties of the menthol in the product ($29.99 for 4.4 ounces).
Patricia Sauer, executive director of the Dallas-based American Emu Association, said her organization urges its members to stay within FDA guidelines when advertising emu oil products. She said that, based on her own experience using the oil to treat severe sunburn, 'I firmly believe there is an [anti-inflammatory]' effect.
Richard J. Guy, chairman of NFI Dietary Supplements, maker of Blue Emu products, said that emu oil 'is an ingredient that's got tremendous potential over the long run.' But he said his company recognizes the need for clinical studies and does not claim that its products provide pain relief.
THE BOTTOM LINE: You are unlikely to be harmed using an emu oil product. Nicolosi said it is quite possible that the oil does have some anti-inflammatory properties. But for now, he said, there is no data to buttress health claims for the oil. 'My concern is that people will rely too heavily on this product,' Nicolosi said, 'and not use the products out there with proven efficacy' for relief of joint pain and other conditions.
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