Nutritionism in South Africa – exporting counterknowledge

November 14, 2008 at 9:54 pm (Bad Science)

Following recent Google Trend action on the Bad Science forums and the blog, I fancied playing with this new toy that Google have kindly provided to us intertube users. I thought it was worth trying “Patrick Holford”. Just for a laugh. You will note from this link that the number one region for googling Cher Patrique is South Africa – in fact the top five cities are all South African as well. Interestingly enough, Dublin and Ireland are also listed above, respectively, UK cities and the UK. When I first looked at the Google Trend page for Holford it was just out of interest. Nothing more than idle curiosity. Only when I saw that he was more popular in South Africa than in the country of his birth did it occur to me that there might be something worth writing about.

The thing is, South Africa and nutritionism have some weird and worrying links. Matthias Rath pulled out of a libel case against the Guardian and Ben Goldacre that related to Goldacre’s Bad Science column pointing out the worrying activities that Rath was involved in in South Africa. South Africa has a significant problem with HIV/AIDS [UNAIDS figures] and antiretrovirals were not publicly available until 2003 [Wiki]. Matthias Rath “bought full page adverts denouncing Aids drugs while promoting his vitamin pills in South Africa”. This led to concern that people in South Africa with HIV/AIDS might forego life-prolonging anti-retroviral treatment in favour of vitamin pills.

That should give you a rough idea of the terrain that nutritionists will encounter should they travel to South Africa. Patrick Holford, in Spring 2007, toured South Africa promoting his book “Food is Better Medicine than Drugs” [co-written with Jerome Burne]. Prior to, during, and since that tour, “Patrick Holford” has made fairly consistent appearances as search term on Google. In 2005 there were occasional spikes on Google for this search term but over the the period 2006-2008 it seems that interest in Holford has steadily increased. The biggest spike in “Patrick Holford” Google searches appears to be in the first quarter of 2007. This coincides with the South Africa tour of “FiBMtD”. This would not cause me to become overly concerned were it not for the odd comments that Patrick has made regarding vitamin C and AIDS.

Patrick, in his book the Optimum Nutrition Bible, wrote that “AZT, the first prescribable anti-HIV drug, is potentially harmful and proving less effective than vitamin C”. The supporting reference for this statement is to an in vitro study that shows that “vitamin C suppresses the HIV virus in both chronically and latently infected cells, while AZT has no significant effect.” Ben Goldacre wrote that “the science is the thing: what is Holford’s evidence for this bizarre, repeated Aids claim? Firstly, he cites two small studies done on cells in a dish on a laboratory bench, using vitamin C and AZT. This is farcically weak evidence, blatantly unfit for purpose and – for students of irony in pseudoscientific literature – absurdly reductionist.” David Colquhoun of Improbable Science, meanwhile, wrote that “the concentrations of Vitamin C that are used in these in vitro studies are something like 10 times greater than can be achieved in man even with very high oral doses” Colquhoun, being scrupulously fair, does point out that Holford has backed off a bit and said that: “There is no doubt that anti-retroviral drugs save lives.” Which is something, at least. If Holford no longer believes that Vitamin C is a subsitute for ARVs then I feel the right thing to do would be to publicise this. Given that (at the time of writing) the statement and reference still appear on Patrick’s website I’m not sure whether Patrick still believes that “AZT, the first prescribable anti-HIV drug, is potentially harmful and proving less effective than vitamin C”, but it certainly looks as if he does. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, however. Perhaps Patrick will update his website at some point and, even better, amend any future edition of the Optimum Nutrition Bible accordingly.

More, more more…

It is not uncommon for people to recommend Alternative Medicine for HIV/AIDS: Ben Goldacre has two pages displaying posts on Africa – mainly about nutritionism and homeopathy being promoted for HIV/AIDS (but also about the very serious issue of HIV/AIDS denialism). Page 1. Page 2.

Webpage: on Vitamin C and AZT. PDF. Google trend for last 12 months – Patrick is still big in South Africa. February 2007 – South Africa has the most hits for Holford here. This is around the time of the tour [Linky]. Below is the image showing Holford’s hits (all years). Bottom image is from the last 12 months and shows a spike around May/June. I’m not sure why there was a spike around this time. Perhaps people wanted to read about him resigning his Associate Professorship (as reported by Holford Watch)?

Holford - all years

Holford - last 12 months


  1. LeeT said,

    Ex-professor Holford is, believe it or not, the patron of the South African Association for Nutriontal Therapy:

  2. dvnutrix said,

    It’s entertaining in many ways that Patrick Holford is patron of SANT while merely a Fellow of BANT who is not necessarily bound by the code of practice for a Member of BANT. So, all in all, that bodes well.

    Nicely done for the trends – and it makes some other figures all the more interesting.

  3. ooopinionsss said,

    How you think when the economic crisis will end? I wish to make statistics of independent opinions!

  4. Andrew Wakefield’s Legacy « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] least partly responsible for the hospitalisation of four children from Minnesota. Once again we are exporting counterknowledge. Rather depressing, isn’t […]

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