PhotoOne of the latest supposed health crazes is drinks made from aloe vera -- you know, that stuff that's in shampoo and skin cream. But is this really something we should be guzzling along with flavored water and artisanal beer?

Health advocates say it isn't.

"Save it for sunburns," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Used topically, aloe vera is safe. But the fanciful health claims manufacturers are slapping on various drinks and pills are unfounded, so people simply shouldn't expose themselves to the risks." 

And risks there most certainly are -- cancer, diarrhea and interference with diabetes drugs among them, according to the National Institutes of Health, which recommends against ingesting gels or liquids made from the leaves of the aloe vera plant. 

The warnings of cancer arise from a two-year NIH study that found "clear evidence of carcinogenic activity in male and female rats, based on tumors of the large intestine." While similar studies haven't been conducted on humans, researchers say there is "nothing that would [indicate] that these findings are not relevant to humans."

Also, abdominal cramps and diarrhea have been reported with oral use of aloe vera, leading to the risk that diarrhea can decrease the absorption of many drugs.

People with diabetes who take glucose-lowering drugs should be especially cautious, since taking aloe by mouth may lower blood glucose levels, which could have serious consequences.

There have also been a few reports of acute hepatitis from aloe vera taken orally, although NIH says the evidence is not definitive.

Why so popular

So, why have aloe vera drinks become so popular? Good question, and the answer seems to be that manufacturers and retailers are making claims that not only go beyond the science but actually contradict it.

"The Fruit of the Earth Aloe Vera Juice offers many health benefits, mainly because of the organically grown and cold processed aloe that constitutes around 99.8% of this product," burbles on its page for Fruit of the Earth aloe vera juice. "It is made using the gel fillet to ensure maximum purity and efficacy. The juice is extracted on the same day of harvest."

Walmart doesn't say what those health benefits may be, which is good, since there are none that anyone seems to know about. Being organic and pure doesn't mean much if the substance in question has no scientifically-proven benefits.

One Walmart claim can't be disputed though: "The 1 gal aloe vera juice does not contain cholesterol, fat, carbs, thickeners, starch or calories." True, and it doesn't contain much else either, as the nutrition label shows.


Other uses

As for other uses, like shampoo and skin cream, NIH says that it may help heal burns and abrasions.

Other than that, "There is not enough scientific evidence to support aloe vera for any of its other uses," NIH said. 

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