The Nutritionism Industry

July 16, 2010 at 2:27 pm (Nutritionism, Supplements)

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.

I cannot find the original article on Patrick’s website, but the Wayback machine has copies of comments Patrick sent to Radio 4 here and here in Q&A format:

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.

9 Comments

  1. Cybertiger said,

    The whole absurd ‘cholesterol’ fandango costs about £2bn per year in the UK. Food for thought?

  2. Cybertiger said,

    “The best person to tell you if a supplement is necessary is probably your GP …”

    You are a tit, jdc523!

  3. ClaireOB said,

    “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”

    I wonder if that is what is going on here?
    “Treatment
    Each diagnosis is specifically designed to take account of the individual person’s particular health condition and lifestyle. If nutritional supplements are required, then only the highest quality supplements from professional sources containing the correct essential nutrients in therapeutic levels are chosen.”

  4. jdc325 said,

    @ClaireOB It’s hard to say based on the available information.

    There’s a couple of bits on that website that I think are a little odd/worrying. This seems to come close to saying that nutritionism is a valid alternative to conventional medicine: “Nutritional Medicine provides solutions to chronic health problems which cannot seemingly be addressed by orthodox methods.” It would be interesting to know which chronic health problems she has in mind and whether she intended to imply that nutritionism is a valid alternative to conventional medicine for these problems.

    This, on lab testing: “Only fully accredited medical laboratories are used for testing focusing on prevention” makes me wonder if the tests used by the fully accredited medical laboratories have been validated. The page seems to imply that the labs will be doing IgG testing This page has something on IgG testing and there’s more on Holford Watch and Breath Spa for Kids re IgG testing.

  5. ClaireOB said,

    I share your concern –
    “…Because of her background Carolyn’s special interests are M.E./Chronic fatigue Syndrome/Fibromyalgia and Heart disease/ High Blood pressure and has significant experience in successfully treating these conditions. …”

    Heart disease? Yikes!

  6. Michael Ringland said,

    I have a background in physiotherapy but also in “nutritional medicine” and alternate enough to try acupuncture, but tell patients “your ears are bullshit filters”, but I think if your health depends on a pill bottle you are in trouble. There is no vitamin for stress but an argument that goes “eat good, fresh food” that would be better for you than “eat processed fat and chemical color”. Does that make sence to you? then that proves “nutritional medicine provides solutions to chronic health problems”. Ask a GP if they can cure heart disease without the use of diet or exercise – I would not go back to those that say “all you need is our drugs”, then that proves the rest of the argument regarding orthodox medicine. Now the argument goes …if you want health care advice, you could go to someone who has graduated from the naturopathic medicine college (part time) with lots of letters after their name – possibly in “nutritional medicine” or “acupuncture” – rather than a real university – its your choice… I am going on record here though as saying “in my opinion” pills will not replace articular cartilage, vitamin c is good for scurvy, vitamin e is good for not much at all, vitamin b is hard to be a problem if your diet is what I regard as average, vitamin d is a more of a problem that initially thought – old advice “just get some sun” may not be enough, use your ears correctly my friends

  7. Sinead said,

    “Ask a GP if they can cure heart disease without the use of diet or exercise – I would not go back to those that say “all you need is our drugs”, then that proves the rest of the argument regarding orthodox medicine”

    What kind of GP says all you need are drugs? A healthy balanced diet with a bit of exercise out of doors nearly goes without saying for every single person, and a lot of GPs I have been to also remind you to drink plenty of water etc.

  8. Paul Turner said,

    Accepting gifts from pharmaceutical companies creates a subtle but potent pressure upon doctors to serve that company’s interests, according a commentary published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

    Before putting too much faith in a doctor, it is important to consider just how much influence Big Pharma can have on the choices a doctor makes.

    The vaccine industry is about making money, not actually offering immune protection against the flu. Whether people get the flu or not is irrelevant to the bottom-line profits of the drug companies. What matters most is that people continue to take the flu shots, and making that happen depends entirely on pushing the vaccine mythology that infects the minds of doctors and health authorities today.

    It is also important to consider the link between having lower vitamin D levels (which many of us have during the winter) and less immunity to the flu. Keeping high levels of Vitamin D will go a long way in keeping us healthy.

  9. Neuroskeptic said,

    Vitamins and minerals are not patented drugs (obviously), so they are as cheap as chips. You can, if you shop around, buy a good multivitamin&minerals for a pittance. I go with Boots – 180 for £9 = just 5 p per day.

    What I don’t understand is why, if the nutrition industry is so virtuous, and genuinely concerned about our health unlike mainstream medicine which is all about profits… why are supplements so expensive? Surely they should be giving them away? Or at least selling them at cost and not trying to make a profit?

    So why are Biocare so expensive? Check out their prices, they are far higher than boots for the same stuff, in general.

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