Raman Spectroscopy and Your Pregnancy Health

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There is a scam that has been promoted with aggressive marketing for more than a decade that goes something like this: stick your hand in a special device, palm facing its laser scanner, and you’ll be given your skin carotenoid score. Something in the range of 10,000 to 20,000 would be a low score, a reason to be concerned, because a score of something like 50,000 or 55,000 means that your diet is supplying you with adequate supplies of carotenoids, the family of anti-oxidant chemicals that include beta-carotene, which gives vegetables and fruits, like carrots, tomatoes, melons, and squash, their red, orange, and yellow color. Other foods, like green tea, dark chocolate, and blueberries also contain antioxidants. Since diets low in carotenoids and other antioxidants and low levels of carotenoids in the blood have been associated with various health conditions, including some pregnancy complications like preeclampsia, and since skin carotenoid measurements have been shown to reflect concentrations of carotenoids in the blood, the message put out by the maker of the scanning device, and by the legions of “wellness consultants” that it deputizes, is that you can use your skin carotenoid score to titrate the amount of vegetables in your diet.

Or, better yet, as an indicator that you need to purchase and ingest carotenoid dietary supplements that the company sells. After flooding your body with these products, you can keep using the 21st century palm reading machine, watch your score go up, get excited, and buy more premium-priced supplements. It’s evidence based, even science based, the company insists, because it has patched together an amalgam of engineers who developed the actual scanner, which uses a valid technique called Raman spectroscopy to measure skin carotenoid concentrations, alternative health practitioners, and certain physicians who ignore science and dabble in alternative health scams, because it’s lucrative, like Dr. Oz.

We live in a very science illiterate society, worsened by the fact that most of the people who yield to the recommendations of scientists and other professionals with appropriate credentials don’t yield because they understand much about the science of the issue in question. Rather, they boast about “believing in science”, an attitude that could not be more out of line with science and actually makes people more susceptible to pseudoscience the promotion of beliefs and practices that are not science based, but are weaved together with a marketing narrative that contains sprinklings of scientific truths. In this case, what’s true is that laser Raman spectroscopy, the basis of the palm skin scanner that the company sells, is a real technique in science. It utilizes what’s called a Raman shift, wherein light of a particular wavelength (and thus a particular color, if it’s in the visible light region of the electromagnetic spectrum) energizes the molecules of particular chemical compounds, leading the molecules to emit light of a different wavelength. So you are shining light of one wavelength at a sample of something, or at the surface of a body tissue, such as skin, and light of a different wavelength is coming back out at you, so the wavelength of the light has been shifted. Since carotenoids can absorb light of a particular wavelength and subsequently emit light of a particular, different wavelength, these compounds can indeed be detected, and their concentration is measured in the skin, via Raman spectroscopy.

Presented with materials that explain this technology and include references to scientific papers, backed up by testimonials from people who have medical and engineering degrees, noting that skin carotenoid levels correspond to blood carotenoid levels, consumers are easily distracted. If, on top of this, they also are exposed to videos, and narratives from “wellness consultants”, referring to scientific studies —all out of context— associating higher carotenoid levels with lower rates of disease or lower carotenoid levels with higher rates of disease, they can be fooled into thinking that the full narrative —from antioxidants in food are good for you to your skin carotenoid score is low so you should buy our supplements— is science based.

It is not science based. A false narrative sprinkled with bits of science that do not support the overall narrative is the mark of pseudoscience. A major problem with the modern day palm reader is that the rationale for using it rests, not merely on one unproven hypothesis, but on a whole series of unproven hypotheses involving a multitude of biochemical pathways. Within this biochemistry and the related physiology and pathophysiology are various points were entities called free radicals, which anti-oxidants soak up, do harm and also points where such molecules are helpful to your health, so countering them would be harmful. In terms of the effects of dietery anti-oxidants, like carotenoids, the concentrations, which depend on the dosage, are extremely important, as they can act as anti-oxidants at some concentrations, yet behave the opposite way (act as oxidants) at other concentrations. The skin carotenoid scanner is thus an excellent example of a situation in which science has a lot of work ahead to try to figure out the nuances of what’s happening, but somebody has used the uncertainty to create a pseudoscience narrative and make money from it.

Weaved in with this, we must drive home a point that we also have discussed previously here on The Pulse, namely that association does not imply causality. Ignoring the pseudoscience trickery and thinking just about the dietary sources of carotenoids, it will occur to you that people, including pregnant women, who take in higher quantities of carotenoids are those who have good diets, while those who take in lower quantities of carotenoids are the ones with poor diets, as they are the diets low in vegetables and fruits. There is no controversy over the finding that diets low in vegetables and fruits are associated with health conditions, such as coronary artery disease and diabetes, while diets high in vegetables and fruits are associated with a lower incidence of these conditions.

But science does not support the conclusion that the reason for this is the carotenoids in the foods. As for the skin carotenoid scanner, it is a palm reader, no more useful than the old fashion palm reader at the local carnival who reads your palm with his or her eyes and tells you that you’ll live to an old age, if the line going around your thumb is long, then tells you your horoscope. About vegetables and fruits, the answer is yes; you should eat a lot of them, whether you are pregnant or not, but especially when pregnant. Should you run into any of these “wellness consultants” trying to sell you a skin carotenoid scanner, or to recruit you to peddle pseudoscience to others, feel free to indulge them in order to waste their time, if you have some time to do this, but don’t give up a penny for the machine, or for the supplements that it was devised to get you to buy, or to get others to buy.

Does this mean that you should avoid all supplements? Certainly not. Pregnant women generally all need supplemental folic acid, many also need iron, topics that we’ll discuss in upcoming posts, but you do not need fancy, high priced supplements. As we always recommend, you should discuss your pregnancy nutritional needs, including the need for extra folic acid and other micronutrients, with your obstetrician, who generally will recommend standard pregnancy supplements that you can find cheap on the shelves of any pharmacy, or supermarket.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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