The vitamin pill trade has been described as the very corporate $50bn food supplement industry by Ben Goldacre on the Bad Science blog. Although there is some regulation of the industry, there will likely always be a way to promote unnecessary pills, powders, and liquids by making claims that do not withstand examination. Personally, I think I would favour a bullshit box.
Note: not all supplements are unnecessary – just most of them. The best person to tell you if a supplement is necessary is probably your GP or a registered dietitian. You should take no more note of the comments of a random blogger than you would those of a media nutritionist.
I’ve written before about food supplement manufacturers making untruthful and unsubstantiated claims (for example Equazen and Healthspan). The ASA have done a sterling job in policing the advertising claims of companies flogging supplements, but their remit only extends so far – and some companies have found ways to promote their products that are not within this remit.
One way is to enter into a relationship with a nutritionist. It is not necessarily wrong for nutritionists to endorse particular supplement firms, but I think it is important that they are at all times transparent about such relationships.
Some of Patrick Holford’s books include tips on where to buy supplements. I haven’t read all of his books, but I can tell you that his H Factor book on homocysteine (more here) contains not only an advert for YorkTest, but also a directory of supplement companies.
The first entry in this directory is Higher Nature (who are also high on the list of manufacturers in Holford’s Optimum Nutrition for the Mind). Patrick Holford “acted as a consultant to Higher Nature for a number of years” and his name used to be on some of the bottles of vitamin pills they sold. As referred to in this post by Gimpy, if it’s got Patrick’s name on it, Patrick earns a royalty.
Q. Finally, will Mr Holford make clear any commercial relationship to any company past or present that promotes and manufacturers vitamin and mineral supplement pills, food intolerance tests or similar related products?
A. “If it’s got my name on it, be a book or a supplement, I earn a royalty. I do formulate my own supplements with the scientific experts at Biocare, whom I believe to be one of the best supplement companies in the UK, and for which I do receive royalties, however I do not simply direct people to take my supplements. I explain, in my books, articles and on my website, what to look out for in supplements, how to make sure you are getting the right levels of the nutrients that the scientific evidence supports as beneficial. I categorically am not in the business of simply persuading people to take supplements so that I can make money out of them, but advise supplements for many reasons which are apparent from articles on my website and in my books.”
I congratulate Mr Holford on his openness and honesty in revealing that he earns a royalty from any supplement that carries his name.
In the interests of transparency, it might be worth including such information elsewhere – in the company directories that appear in his books, perhaps. After all, I am sure that Patrick would agree that competing interests should be declared. He is so keen on competing interests being declared, he thinks that even those interests that do not exist should be declared.
Perhaps I should write to Mr Holford and suggest the idea to him.