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We are all interested in the relationship between our health and what we eat. What a pity that so little is known about it.

The problem, of course, is that it almost impossible to do randomised experiments, and quite impossible in most cases to make the experiments blind. Without randomisation there is no way to be sure about causality, and causality is all that matters. All you can do is measure “associations” and that sort of information is simply unreliable.

For example, if you simply observe that people who eat a lot of dark green vegetables are healthier than those who don’t, there is no reliable way to tell whether their health is caused by eating the vegetables. It is just as likely that, for example, rich people are healthier because the are rich, not because they eat more vegetables. The answer, though usually not known, is the only thing that matters for offering advice. The crucial problem is that, in the latter case, it will do no good at all to bully a poor person to eat more vegetables: their health will not improve because their bad health was caused by poverty, not by lack of vegetables.

It is precisely this difficulty that results in the constantly conflicting advice that we are given about diet. I can’t think of any single thing that does more harm to real science than the fact that one week we are told that red wine is bad and the next week we are told that red wine is good. No doubt both statements were based on a naive observational studies, the significance of which is vastly exaggerated by its authors (and often by their university’s media department too).

The first job of a scientist is to be able to say “I don’t know”. Under pressure from the government’s audit culture, and the HR apparatchiks who embrace it so eagerly, all that is forgotten only too easily. he lack of certain answers about diet leaves a vacuum into which not only naive scientists are sucked, but also it is a gift for hucksters who are eager to sell you expensive ‘supplements’, whether or not you need them. As always, it is a case of caveat emptor.

The questions are important to us all, so when sciencepunk pointed out to me a chance to check my own diet, I went for it. I try to keep pretty close to the current guidelines. Unreliable though they may be, they are the best we’ve got. So I went to the Nutriprofile site, and filled in the questionnaire, quite honestly (apart from saying I was 37 -I wish).

I eat plenty of fruit and oily fish every week so I though I’d do quite well. No such luck. I ended up being told I was deficient in iron and selenium, and at “risk of deficiency” in vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), folate, vitamins D, E, K, magnesium, copper and potassium.

Uhuh, I must really be ill and I’d never realised it.

At the bottom of this analysis of all my deficiencies comes the sales pitch, “your personalised supplement recommendations”.”Strongly recommended” for me is Gold Standard A-Z Multivitamins (just click on the “buy now” button). I’m also “recommended” to buy Omega 3 1000mg capsules.

And then I’m invited to consider a whole list of other supplements

“The following products have been given a 1 star rating. This usually means they have been recommended to meet a specific issue raised by your NutriProfile. You should consider these supplements where you feel they could help if the issue is particularly important to you”

Here is the list.

• Selenium + A,C,E,
• OptiFive (antioxidant supplement)
• Co-enzyme Q10 (“may help you maintain energy levels” -look out for a forthcoming post on this scam)
• Memo Plus (“may help you maintain brain health and cognitive function”),
• Psyllium Husks
• Magnesium
• Vitamin D
• Ginkgo Biloba
• Probiotic

As always, there are lots of fantasies about “strengthening the immune system”. And the great antioxidant myth is exploited to the full.

Puzzled by this result, I got my wife to do the questionnaire, and also a particularly healthy and diet conscious colleague.

My wife was recommended to buy Omega 3 1000mg, Osteo Plus Bone health supplement (despite telling them that she already took calcium) and 50 Plus Multivitamins (“may help you address any deficiency in essential vitamins and minerals and may also help you maintain a healthy immune system and maintain energy levels. “). And then it may not.

My spectacularly healthy and diet conscious colleague got a strongly recommended (maximum 5 stars like me) for Gold Standard A-Z Multivitamins and for Omega 3 1000mg, as well as “recommended” for plant sterols, garlic and Opti-Omega 3.

Either I’m a lot unhealthier than I thought, or Nutriprofile is a sales scam.
You decide.

### Is there anyone at all who does NOT need supplements?

By this stage I was getting suspicious so I sent the link to a professional dietitian, Catherine Collins of St George’s Hospital London. Unlike the people running the site, she has no financial interest in selling you pills. I asked her to fill in the questionnaire as a hypothetical person who had an ideal diet, based on current nutritional knowledge . Surely such a paragon of dietetic virtue would not need to buy pills too?

Don’t you believe it. At least she didn’t get any 5 star “strongly recommended”, but she did get “Recommended for you” Opti-Omega 3 (3.5 stars) and Gold Standard A-Z Multivitamins (3 stars). Plus, of course the whole list of “you may like to consider”, same as everyone seems to get.
So I asked Collins how it came about that everyone seems to end up being recommended to buy pills after going through all the questions. Here is what she said.

“Apparently my ratio of omega3:6 is unbalanced. not if you ate the amount of oily fish i’d put in, and used ‘vegetable’ oil which is mono-rich rapeseed. I think they’ve used the sunflower analysis to generate this distortion.

I disagree with absolute amounts of omega-3 per day. The amount I recorded meant I would easily exceed a daily intake of 500 mg of the important omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA

Low Vitamin B6 and folate – totally incorrect recommendation based on my entries

Potassium – the survey indicated concern that diet provided 200mg per day less potassium than recommended. This was incorrect, the flaw I assume being due to inability of the questionnaire to handle portion sizes. Should I have been worried even if this had been accurate? Of course not. Potassium is widespread across food groups, the most concentrated being fruit and vegetables. It is an essential nutrient, but its requirements are relative to sodium (‘salt’) intake.

Their omega-3 fat recommendation is double the FSA/ SACN suggestion of 450mg/d – they actually quote this in their supporting information but then say ‘experts say we need double’ [their experts are below]. This is highly misleading. We need a combination of omega-3 fats in our diet for health – not only the ‘fishy’ EPA and DHA, but also the readily available ALA, found in vegetable (rapeseed) oil

Omega 3:6 ratio -completely wrong based on the foods entered. Demonstrates a major flaws in the assumptions made about type and amount of foods in the diet.

Water recommendations. Totally inaccurate information based on the myth expounded by the health food industry and its workers that caffeine is a diuretic. This been extensively researched and proven to be not true ( Grandjeans excellent work). The only way in which a caffeinated beverage is ‘diuretic’ to someone who takes caffeinated drinks regularly is in the volume of drink consumed.

She concludes

“”This appears an elaborate pill-pushing exercise. Superficially reassuring in promoting the recognised FSA (Food Standards Agency] line – but then giving undue – and unjustifiable – support to the anecdotal ‘experts recommend’ to create what will be a powerful sell”

The comment about water intake stems from this bit of Collins’ Nutriprofile:

“Caffeinated drinks, fizzy drinks and alcohol do not count because, whilst they contain water, they are mild diuretics, ie. they boost urine output and therefore should only form a small part of your total fluid intake.”

This myth (aka nutribollocks) is quite contrary to what the real research (going back to 1928) says, Check “Laying the caffeine myth to rest” for the real story..

I’m told that Healthspan are now sending out the paper questionnaire in newspapers. Presumably this is to ensure that the poor, the elderly etc and others who that aren’t computer literate don’t miss their buying opportunity. How considerate of them.

### Nutriprofile’s expert team

Who is the expert team behind Nutriprofile? Here they are.

Yes, that is the Ann Walker, the one who recently wasted so much time for the Provost of UCL. Luckily that little episode worked out fine in the end. At the last check she worked one tenth of her time for the University of Reading, and ran a herbal practice from her house. It is her recommendation of red clover as a “blood cleanser” that is responsible for the picture of clover in the header of this blog.

### What do the real experts say about supplements?

The story you get is quite different when you ask somebody who is not trying to sell you something

Most people should be able to get all the nutrients they need by eating a varied and balanced diet. But if you choose to take supplements, it’s important to know that taking too much or taking them for too long can cause harmful effects.”

Harvard Men’s Health Watch says

“Harvard Men’s Health Watch suggests that the average man give up the multivitamin, at least until scientists solve the puzzle of folic acid and cancer.”

“If you eat a balanced diet that includes food from all the major groups, there should be no need to take vitamin supplements. The food you eat will provide you with all the vitamins and minerals you need. “

I guess we should not be surprised at the direct contradiction between this advice and that of the Nutriprofile questionnaire. After all, Nutriprofile was developed by a company, Healthspan, that is devoted to selling “supplements” with all the dubious claims and customer testimonials associated with the alternative health industry.

But this is what always happens when big business controls science.

### Postscript

Oddly enough, Ann Walker’s experience seems to be much the same as ours. In an interview on the Healthspan site we read this.

Q: Which nutritional supplements do you choose to take?

A: I regularly take a multivitamin, vitamins C and E, fish oil, and a calcium and magnesium combination. I also take vitamin D during the winter and some herbs as and when they are needed.

Even if I have improved my diet, each time I complete the NutriProfile questionnaire my requirement for a multivitamin, calcium and magnesium, and a fish oil supplement are always thrown up.

Didn’t it occur to her to wonder why?

The sales pitch was followed up on 27 March the email arrived from Healthspan “Healthspan are offering you £5 to spend towards your recommended supplements”. One can’t say whether this offer goes to people who were not recommended supplements, because so far no such person has been found.

This is the third post based on a recent trip to North America (here are the first and second)

One aspect of the endarkenment, the Wal-Mart model of a university, is very much the same in the US as in the UK. At one US university, an excellent scientist offered the theory that an alien spacecraft had scattered spores across the land which developed into HR staff who appeared at first sight to be human, and who colonised academia.

The penetration of quackademics into US universities is a bit different from in the UK.

In the UK, the plague is restricted to sixteen or so ex-polytechnic universities which, to their great shame, actually offer Bachelor of Science degress in subjects like homeopathy. There are bits of quackery in good teaching hospitals (such as laying-on-of-hands at UCLH), but not very much.

In the USA and Canada, this sort of “vocational” training does not occur much in universities, but in separate colleges. The situation is worse there though, insofar as these colleges have been allowed to award titles like ‘doctor of naturopathic medicine (ND)’, for work that in no respect compares with what the rest of the world has to do to earn a doctorate. This prostitution of academic titles has not happened to anything like the same extent in the UK. How our own quacks would love it if they were allowed to call themselves ‘doctor’ and sport the initials ND (so easily mistaken for MD at first sight).

It is on the clinical side where the situation is far worse than in the UK. Almost every university hospital, including Harvard, Yale and Stanford, has departments devoted to fairy-tale medicine.

Quacks use a number of euphemisms to make themselves sound more respectable. First they became ‘alternative medicine’, then ‘complementary medicine’. Now the most-used euphemism is ‘integrative medicine’, which is favoured by most US universities (as well as by the Prince of Wales). Raymond Tallis pointed out that this seems to mean integration of treatments that don’t work with treatments that do work.

An official roll of shame for North American universities can be seen here (35 in USA and 4 in Canada).

A bigger collection of 44 universities has been posted by the incomparable Orac at the The Academic Woo Aggregator. He’s had good support in the USA from DrRW (R.W. Donnell), see particularly his articles on How did pseudoscience get admitted to medical school? and What is happening to our medical schools? Abraham Flexner is turning over in his grave.

All these outfits have two things in common. They all claim to be scientific and evidence-based, and none has produced any real evidence that any of their treatments work.

Here are a few examples of what’s going on.

### Yale University School of Medicine

The usual theme is expressed thus.

“Through open-minded exploration and rigorous scientific inquiry, we aim to improve awareness and access to the best in evidence-based, comprehensive medical care available worldwide, with the goal of optimizing health and healing for patients”

The driving force behind the woo seems to be a fourth year medical student, Rachel Friedman, so I wrote to her to ask what useful alternative treatments had been established by research at Yale. But she could not identify any. All I got was this.

“My best advice would be to do some medline searching of metaanalyses” there’s been enough research into some of these modalities to provide for a metaanalysis.”

So she was unable to produce nothing (and anyway. metanalyses, useful though they may be, are not research).. A glance at the Yale publications page shows why.

### The Scripps Institute

“In use at Scripps since 1993, Healing Touch is an energy-based, non-invasive treatment that restores and balances energy to help decrease pain and relieve associated anxiety.

Healing Touch is performed by registered nurses who recognize, manipulate and balance the electromagnetic fields surrounding the human body, thereby promoting healing and the well-being of body, mind and spirit.”

“Balances energy”?

“manipulate and balance the electromagnetic fields surrounding the human body”?

This is just meaningless baloney. And it come from the Scripps Institute.

### The Oregon Health & Science University

OHSU is an excellent and well-respected research university where I have many friends. It was a pleasure to meet them recently.

But it also has a big department of “Complementary and alternative medicine” and an “Integrated medicine service”. There are some good bits of advice mixed up with a whole range of crazy stuff. Take their page on homeopathy.

“This therapy treats ailments with very small amounts of the same substance that causes the patient’s symptoms.”

WRONG. In most cases it is zero amount. To brush this fact under the carpet is simply dishonest (and perhaps a sign of guilt). Then comes this (my emphasis)..

Explanations for why homeopathy works range from the idea that homeopathic medicine stimulates the body’s own natural defenses to the idea that homeopathic medicine retains a “memory” of the original substance.

However, there is no factual explanation for why homeopathy works and more research is needed.”

WRONG. This statement carries (twice) the expicit message that homeopathy does work, quite contrary to a mountain of good evidence that it is merely a placebo. The statement is deceptive and dishonest. And it comes with the OHSU logo.

### The University of Arizona

” Heal medicine”, “Transform the world?” Modest uh?

The University of Arizona Program in Integrative Medicine is certainly not modest in its claims, but its publications page shows that it doesn’t even attempt to find out if its “therapies” actually work.

Here is an example. They are advertising their Nutrition and Health conference
heavily.

There’s nothing wrong with good nutrition of course, but the ‘alternative’ approach is instantly revealed by the heavy reliance on the great antioxidant myth.

And look at the sponsors. The logo at the top is for Pistachio Health, a company that promotes pistachio nuts: “Delicious and good-for-you, pistachios are nature’s super heart-healthy snack. Nutrient dense, full of fiber and antioxidants, pistachios give you more bang per calories than any other nut.”.

The other advertisement is ‘POM Wonderful’, a company that sells and promotes pomegranate juice, “POM is the only pomegranate juice you can trust for real pomegranate health benefits”

No doubt pistachio nuts and pomegranate juice are perfectly good foods. But the health claims made for them are just marketing and have very little basis in fact.

Now let’s look at the speakers. Take, for example, Dr David Heber, MD., PhD. He is director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, a professor of Medicine and Public Health, and the founding Chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition in the Department of Medicine. He is the author of several books including “What Color is Your Diet” and the “L.A. Shape Diet.” With the possible exception of the books, you can’t sound like a more respectable and impartial source of advice than that.

But hang on. Dr Heber is to be seen in a video on the Pistachio Health web site doing what amounts to a commercial for pistachio nuts.

OK let’s take a look at one of Dr Heber’s papers. Here’s one about, guess what, pomegranate juice. “Pomegranate Juice Ellagitannin Metabolites Are Present in Human Plasma and Some Persist in Urine for Up to 48 Hours”. The work was “Supported by the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Revocable Trust and from the NIH/NCI grant P50AT00151”. So no problems there. Well not until you check POM Wonderful in Wikipedia, where you find out that Stewart and Lynda Resnick just happen to be founders of POM.

Of course none of these interesting facts proves that there is anything wrong with the work. But they certainly do show that the alternative nutrition business is at least as much hand-in-glove with big business as any other form of medicine. And we know the problems that that has caused.

### The Health Supplements Information Service (HSIS)

Needless to say, the supplements industry has already organised vilification of this excellent bit of work.

According to their web site,

“HSIS is funded by The Boots Company PLC, Bayer PLC, Perrigo, Seven Seas Ltd and Wyeth Consumer Healthcare. The campaign is co-ordinated by PAGB (Proprietary Association of Great Britain)”.

So it’s no surprise that their spokesperson. Dr Ann Walker, immediately tried to discredit the study, saying “The results of these mixed-sample metaanalyses are worthless” (The Times).

This same Ann Walker recently wrote and editorial in the British Journal of General Practice (January 2007). The editorial concludes “Although still considered to be controversial by some, taking a daily multinutrient supplement would bridge the gap between intake and requirements and ensure that nutrient target intakes are met.” But in this editorial her affiliation is given as Senior Lecturer in Human Nutrition, University of Reading. No mention at all of her role as spokesperson for the Supplements industry. Tut tut.

### Patrick Holford too

Needless to say, supplement salesman Patrick Holford has weighed into the vilification. His objections have been dealt with nicely on the cutely named web site stopholfordtalkingrubbish.blogspot.com. Find the answers here.

Holford is the man who, in the BMJ said “Competing interests: none declared”, when promoting his supplements.

No interests? Holford himself has said

“any product, be it a publication, seminar, food or supplement, that is authored/invented by me has my name on it and earns me a royalty/payment. That is how I live and fund my research.”

So what about the galaxy of supplements being sold at “Health products for Life”? They say “we only supply supplements, foods and drinks that are recommended by nutrition expert, Patrick Holford.” And at the bottom of the page it says “©Copyright 2007 Holford and Associates. All Rights Reserved”. Companies House lists the sole shareholder in ‘Health Products for Life’ as P.J. Holford.

### Garlic is no good either

Another interesting recent paper has appeared in Archives of Internal Medicine

Garlic is widely promoted as a cholesterol-lowering agent, but the evidence so far has been lousy. In this trial, 192 adults with low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) concentrations of 130 to 190 mg/dL (3.36-4.91 mmol/L) were randomly assigned to one of the following four treatment arms: raw garlic, powdered garlic supplement, aged garlic extract supplement, or placebo.

Conclusions None of the forms of garlic used in this study, including raw garlic, when given at an approximate dose of a 4-g clove per day, 6 d/wk for 6 months, had statistically or clinically significant effects on LDL-C or other plasma lipid concentrations in adults with moderate hypercholesterolemia.”

This item appeared originally on my old Religion and Education page. It has been moved here because of the discussion that followed my review in the BMJ of Unscientific America and the discussion that followed, on this blog and on P.Z. Myers Pharyngula blog.

Until recently, the idea that the earth was created 6000 years ago was largely restricted to right wing religious fundamentalists in the USA. Now we have a government in the UK which seems to be happy that such “fruit-cake” nonsense should be taught at the taxpayers’ expense.

The following article, Good God Almighty, was commissioned by Punch magazine, which folded before it could be published.
It refers to the fuss that followed the discovery that a state-funded school was being run by extreme ‘young earth’ creationists. If you want to see just how extreme, look at the speech made by Steven Layfield, the head of science at Emmanuel School. The views expressed are so extreme that the speech was actually deleted from the web site of the Christian Institute as soon as the fuss blew up. Luckily, thanks to the Google cache, this did not work and you can still read it at here.

### Good God Almighty!

or Jurassic Theology

[This article was commissioned by Punch, but the magazine went out of business before it was published]

OK class, settle down. Here is your quiz. Compare and contrast the following.

(1) ” . . if the Bible really is the Word of God – and the internal evidence is overwhelming – true Science will always agree with it.”

(2)Science teachers should

“Note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm (millions or billions of years) is explicitly mentioned or implied by a text-book, examination question or visitor and courteously point out the fallibility of the statement and, wherever possible, give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data”.

(3) “There are those that argue that Science and Christianity can be harmoniously reconciled . . . We cannot subscribe to this view”

(4) “Then there is science. Science is a God-given activity. Scientists are 5using their God-given minds and God-given creativity to explore and utilise God-given nature. Sadly, biblical literalism brings not only the bible but Christianity itself into disrepute.”
[The Bishop of Oxford. The Rt. Revd. Richard Harries, 2002]

(5) “God created the world and everything in it.” “It is about 6000 years old”
[Kate and Simon, pupils of Emmanuel School, Gateshead, interviewed by Mike Thomson, BBC]

(5) [Jenny Tonge, MP:]   “Is the Prime Minister happy to allow the teaching of creationism alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in state schools?”

[Tony Blair]. First I am very happy.”
“Secondly, I know that the honourable lady is referring to a school in the north-east, and I think that certain reports about what it has been teaching have been somewhat exaggerated”.

The prime minister is right. Something has been exaggerated:

The idea that teachers realise that the scientific method involves not declaring the outcome in advance.

Clearly, the head of science at Emmanuel doesn’t. To proclaim, before looking, that one view (the literal interpretation of the bible) is “always better” might be expected of an itinerant preacher in the deepest bible belt, but that is the view of the man in charge of educating children at a state-funded English school.

It is a view that offends the Bishop of Oxford, and it is contrary to the views expressed by Pope John Paul II. But don’t worry, our leader is “very happy” with it. To give equal time to a simple assertion (that the earth was created 6000 years ago), and to the wealth of hard-won reasons for thinking it to be untrue, is deeply offensive to every scientist who is trying to fumble towards the best approximation to the truth that can be found. Rarely can a couple of teachers and one prime minister have managed to offend so many people, everyone from bishops to professors, at a single sweep.

Of course neither the prime minister nor anybody else knows exactly what Emmanuel School has been teaching (though the reports from the children themselves give us a good idea). The glowing report from OFSTED was actually the result of a “short inspection” which does not look at such details. The school has not been given a full inspection since 1994, before the serious zealots took control. Views such as those in the first two quotations are so obviously relevant to the quality of science teaching that you may well ask how OFSTED managed not to notice that the views of the head of science were at the very extreme edge of fundamentalism.

Consider also the following amazing coincidence. The team of inspectors who found no fault with the unusual science (biblical is always best) teaching at Emmanuel was almost the same as the team that inspected the Huntington School, York. At that school they said that there was not enough teaching of religion (in the narrow sense, as opposed to spiritual values in general). The Huntington head teacher Chris Bridge lodged a complaint against that report, and it was partially upheld by OFSTED.

Does all this mean that extreme fundamentalism has infiltrated OFSTED, or does it simply mean that the inspectors did not do their homework?

The latter is the more charitable interpretation, but the inspectors are not going to get the chance to ‘try harder next time’. Instead Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, wrote a letter to the chairman of the governors, asking for “clarification”. Unlike most schools, the Emmanuel School does not publish the names of its governors in the school prospectus, and neither OFSTED, nor the Department of Education, knows who they are. OFSTED does give the name of the chairman as “Dr `Peter Vardy” (as does the school if you phone). It turns out that the learned Dr Vardy is one and the same person as Sir Peter Vardy, the man who gave the government two million pounds to pay for the school. Don’t worry about the “Dr” bit though –it is perfectly genuine. The University of Sunderland was generous enough to give him an honorary doctorate in business administration (after he generously gave the University £1 million). The Chief Inspector (by then changed) recieved a suitably emollient letter from Sir Peter, but did no investigation whatsoever. Ofsted gives the firm impression of having born yesterday.

It is hard to appreciate the manic fervour of Mr Layfield’s notorious speech from only two quotations. It used to be on the web site of the Christian Institute (www.Christian.org.uk), and that site is still worth a visit. Mr McQuoid is a major contributor (see quotation no 2), but other bits are well worth reading too, like the vigorous defence of beating children (don’t get me wrong –I know there are lots of sites that deal with that sort of thing, but this is different; it is holy beating).

Mr Layfield’s speech suddenly vanished from this web site shortly after Tania Brannigan (of the Guardian) told us what was going on. Luckily, though, some kind folks thought it was such an outstanding piece of work that should still be available to everyone (just go to http://www.darwinwars.com/lunatic/liars/layfield.html).

Time’s up folks. Put down your pens and now go out and vote.