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Food for the Brain: Child Survey. A proper job?

February 7th, 2008 · 4 Comments

“the report is more hypothesis-generating for future research than a rigorous scientific study.

Find us some money and we will do a proper job.

You can quote me for that.”


Professor David Smith (Oxford). Scientific adviser for Food for the Brain.

A great deal has been written about media ‘nutritionist’, Patrick Holford. He’s the chap who thinks that chromium and cinnamon can treat diabetes (watch the video), among other odd beliefs. For all the details, check badscience.net, holfordwatch and here.
For a quick synopsis, look at Holfordmyths.org.

Patrick Holford and Drew Fobbester are joint researchers and authors of the Food for the Brain Child Survey , September 2007 (pdf). Holfordwatch has made a very thorough study of this report, in eight parts (so far). They conclude

HolfordWatch can not share the optimism for these claimed benefits and finds that there is insufficient data to support them in a robust manner.”

There are many detailed questions, but the basic problem with the report is very simple. The fact that is (a) self-selected and (b) not randomised make it just another naive observational study. The stunningly obvious confounder in this case is, as so often, the socio-economic background of the kids. That was not even assessed, never mind any attempt being made to allow for it.

This isn’t just pedantry because what matters is causality. It is worth very little to know that eating vegetables is correlated with high SAT score if the correlation is a result of having well-off parents. If that were the reason, then forcing kids with poor parents to eat vegetables would make no difference to their SAT score because their parents would still be poor. The only conclusion of the study seems to be that we should eat more fruit and vegetables, something that we are already lectured about in every waking moment.

Many questions about the report have not yet been answered by its authors. But the report has a panel of scientific advisors, some of whom at least seem to be very respectable (though not ‘orthomolecular medicine‘, which is a cult founded on the batty late-life beliefs of the once great Linus Pauling that Vitamin C is a magic bullet).

Furthermore they are thanked thus

As it happens, David Smith is an old friend, so I wrote to him, and also to Philip Cowen, with some detailed questions. I didn’t get detailed answers, but the responses were none the less interesting. Cowen said

“I did see the report and quite agree with your conclusions that it an observational study and therefore not informative about causality.”

“The advice about diet seems reasonable although, as you point out, probably somewhat redundant.”

But still more interesting, David Smith told me (my emphasis)

“the survey was the largest of its kind and was done on minimal funding; hence several matters could not be dealt with and so the report is more hypothesis-generating for future research than a rigorous scientific study. Find us some money and we will do a proper job. You can quote me for that, if you wish.”

I’d grateful to David for his permission to quote this comment, It seems that Holford’s top scientific advisor agrees that it is not a rigorous study, and even agrees that the “proper job” is still to be done.

But it does seem a shame that that was not made clear in the report itself.

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Tags: Academia · advertisements · Anti-science · badscience · business · CAM · conflict of interest · nutribollocks · nutrition · spin · statistics · Universities

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dr Aust // Feb 13, 2008 at 03:28

    Abram “Orthomolecular” Hoffer, who is now 90 years old, was one of Patrick H’s original “nutrition gurus”, of course.

    Hoffer is a fascinating figure. He was, with Humphry Osmond, an enthusiast for research with psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD, in the 50s and 60s. The rationale for some of the early nutritional stuff Hoffer and Osmond did was their belief that anything psychedelics could do, nutritional changes should be able to do too.

    A bit more about Hoffer and “Orthmolecular Medicine” can be found on Wikipedia, or in my piece on Holford’s mentors here.

    I’m only surprised Patrick hasn’t signed up that other Superstar of the Orthomolecular Firmament, Matthias Rath.

  • 2 Chair of FFTB Scientific Advisory Board acknowledges that their research hasn’t been “a proper job” and hasn’t been “rigorous” « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science // Feb 14, 2008 at 10:24

    [...] 14, 2008 · No Comments Two members of the Food for the Brain (FFTB) Scientific Advisory Board were asked about the FFTB child survey we’ve been analysing [...]

  • 3 Vitamins B and Alzheimer’s disease. A tale of two papers, and some bad reporting // Oct 3, 2010 at 19:00

    [...] It isn’t as though there wasn’t a bit of relevant history, Prof Smith was one of the scientific advisors for Patrick Holford’s Food for the Brain survey. This survey was, quie rightly, criticised for being uninterpretable. When asked about this, Smith admitted as much, as recounted in Food for the Brain: Child Survey. A proper job?. [...]

  • 4 Which? magazine: “…high street nutritional therapists are a waste of money” // Jan 16, 2012 at 01:01

    [...] useful aid or sales scam?  Response to a threatening letter from Mr Holford Food for the Brain: Child Survey. A proper job? Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy College of Natural [...]

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