Questioning Coral Calcium Claims

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Is coral calcium any better than other forms of calcium, or is it better left at the bottom of the ocean?

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Coral calcium is a hot nutritional product, with promoters claiming it can treat or cure diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and lupus by increasing calcium levels and improving the body's pH balance. With a monthly supply costing around $30, it's ringing in lots of money for its makers, and leaving many people hopeful that their aliments are behind them.

Years of research have shown that calcium is an important part of a person's diet, but is coral calcium really the cream of the crop, or is it better left at the bottom of the ocean?  And how can you tell when the claims surrounding a product like coral calcium are fact or fiction?

The Origins of Coral Calcium  

Coral calcium comes from oceanic coral reefs and the shells of sea creatures, which contain limestone, and limestone largely consists of calcium carbonate. Coral also contains trace minerals. Since the law protects coral reefs from being harvested, coral calcium is collected from the parts of a reef that have broken off and are lying on the sea floor.

The majority of coral calcium is taken from shores off Okinawa, Japan. Some believe the drinking water of the Okinawans, which comes from the coral-rich waters off their coast, plays a part in their health and longevity. Japan has one of the highest percentages of citizens over the age of 100 in the world, according to the Okinawa Centenarian Study.

If coral calcium works for the people of Okinawa, it should work for the rest of us, right?

Coral Calcium Claims 

The principal promoter of coral calcium is Robert Barefoot. In his informercial, he states, "Over 200 degenerative diseases are caused by calcium deficiency. That includes cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, you name it. These diseases are caused by acidosis -- acidification of the body -- and lack of minerals, especially calcium. When you start taking coral calcium, your body alkalizes and drives out the acid."

Barefoot's theory is that in a healthy person, body fluids are alkaline with a high pH reading and high in oxygen levels, whereas in a sick person, body fluids are acidic with a low pH reading and low in oxygen levels.

He claims scientists have found that many diseases thrive in an acidic, low-oxygen environment, but cannot survive in an alkaline, high-oxygen medium. So he concludes that to ensure health, the body should have an oxygen-rich alkalinity of around 7.5, making it incapable of hosting diseases like cancer.

This is why, according to Barefoot, the Okinawans with their coral calcium-rich water, "never, ever, ever get sick. They never get cancer, they never get heart disease, they never get diabetes. They have no doctors. These people live 30, 40 years longer, and they don't grow old."

Do these claims hold water?

What the Experts Say

"There are no data to support Barefoot's claims that coral calcium is effective against a large range of diseases," says Stephen Barrett, MD, whose Web site contains a lengthy investigation on coral calcium.

"While it can be effective against some symptoms of stomach distress, Barefoot's claim that his product is effective against more than 200 diseases is preposterous. The idea that coral calcium could reverse cancer is ridiculous, and this kind of advertising is irresponsible, dangerous, and very illegal, and I don't think it's going to last."

The Federal Trade Commission agrees. In June, the FTC charged Barefoot and associates with making false and unsubstantiated claims about his product. The FTC and the FDA also warned others against making similar claims.

Barrett, who is a retired psychiatrist and vice president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, tells WebMD that although some people may not be getting enough calcium in their diet, and a supplement may be necessary, coral calcium is not the answer.

"There is no reason to buy coral calcium because it's overpriced and it may contain things that you don't want," says Barrett. Coral calcium has not been extensively tested, explains Barrett, and it is not known what it actually contains. It could contain contaminants from the ocean, which has been polluted.  

"Since it costs more, and isn't any better than a purified calcium supplement, it doesn't make sense to buy it," says Barrett. "And, the trace minerals that it may or may not contain are usually obtained through a healthy diet -- you don't need coral calcium to get them."

And the claim that the Okinawans live to be more than 100 is a result of their coral calcium-rich drinking water?

According to the Okinawa Centenarian Study:

"Although Okinawa may have the world's highest concentration of centenarians, as well as extremely low mortality rates from diseases common in the West such as heart disease, breast, and prostate cancers, the research shows that it has very little to do with their drinking water. Although drinking hard water (high mineral content that includes calcium, magnesium, and other minerals) gives the Okinawans a boost in their calcium intakes, they still fall far below the calcium intakes of most Western countries."

This study attributes the longevity of the Okinawans to their diet, physical activity, and a preventive approach to health and medicine.

Calcium or Coral Calcium?

"Calcium has many important biological roles in humans, the most important being bone health," says Gregory Miller, PhD.

The average person needs about 800-1,300 mg of calcium every day, Miller tells WebMD, which is the equivalent of about three to four servings of dairy products.

"Most health professionals recommend that you get your nutrients from your diet first, so calcium-rich foods are the first thing they recommend," says Miller, who is a senior vice president of nutrition and scientific affairs at the National Dairy Council. "If for some reason you can't or won't consume enough calcium, a physician will recommend a generic supplement."

But, he explains to WebMD, you're no better off taking coral calcium over a purified calcium supplement.

"Coral calcium is just another source of calcium, whether you're getting it from carbonate, citrate, lactate, or coral calcium," says Miller. "I'm not aware of any data that suggests coral calcium has any benefits that normal calcium does not give you, and the disadvantage to taking it is cost."

Calcium comes in various formulations:

  • Calcium carbonate -- the most common and least expensive -- comes from oyster shells and is absorbed best when taken with a meal.
  • Calcium citrate and calcium gluconate are formulated so that they can be taken without food.
  • Coral calcium consists of calcium carbonate, magnesium, and trace minerals like selenium and chromium.

Deciphering Fact From Fiction

So what should you consider when deciding to take a dietary or nutritional supplement, such as coral calcium? According to the FDA, these steps should help you determine fact from fiction:

  • Ask yourself if the claims a product makes are too good to be true, according to the FDA. Does the product claim to be a cure-all? If it does, chances are those claims are not accurate.
  • Be wary of products that base their effectiveness on only one study, or on a study that isn't referenced. Instead, look for products that are substantiated by a body of scientific research that are listed so you can review them for yourself.
  • Also be wary of products that use personal anecdotes as evidence that they work, such as, "Millions of people have tried this product, and it has worked for them!"
  • Call the manufacturer and ask questions like, "What information do they have to substantiate their product claims? Does the firm have information to share about tests it has conducted on the safety or effectiveness of the product? Have they received any adverse event reports from consumers using their products?"
  • Check with your doctor before taking any dietary or nutritional supplement -- he or she may offer some advice on what works, what doesn't, and what products pass muster.

"When a product starts making grandiose claims that it will do all these things--it's 'over-hyped' and based only on testimonials--you have to be cautious about what is being said," says Miller.

The Bottom Line

Coral calcium can help -- if you need a calcium supplement and want to pay $30 for a month's supply instead of $5. So, be reasonable. Talk to your doctor and discuss the pros and cons of this type of calcium compared with purified types, and then make an informed decision about your health and your wallet.

Published July 14, 2003.

SOURCES:   University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter, February 2003. "Okinawa Centenarian Study Position Statement on Coral Calcium," Jan. 7, 2003.  Stephen Barrett, MD, retired psychiatrist, vice president, National Council Against Health Fraud, scientific advisor to the American Council on Science and Health, and manager of Gregory Miller, PhD, nutrition and toxicology, senior vice president, Nutrition and Scientific Affairs, National Dairy Council. WebMD Medical News: " Calcium Pills: Some Fail Quality Tests."

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