Journalistic Quackery

Making false claims is the essence of medical quackery. Those who do it just for the money are considered charlatans. Until recently, nutrition health claims have been rated that low. Any physician, who claimed that nutrition could be a treatment for disease was automatically considered to be a quack. Do we have similar titles in other professions? In court we call it perjury; most everywhere else we just call it incompetence, but if it is done knowingly and for profit, we classify the perpetrator as a crook. Do we have a name for writers who make false claims? If you can prove it in court it is called libel, slander or swindle. Usually it is just being dumb. When it is obviously at someone’s expense, however, it is ignorance or error compounded by hostility and anger—arrogance. Journalistic arrogance is not nice, even when disguised as public service. I know. In my files I recently came across a dormant folder marked "New York Times." In it is a 1981 article by food writer, Jane Brody, entitled "The dangers of nutritional misinformation."

The article begins with a few examples of foolish nutrient therapies: a child damaged by overdoses of vitamin A; a false diagnosis of selenium toxicity by miss-use of hair analysis; and a condemnation of vitamin B15 as a fraud. Egad! I can feel my own dismay and anger rising all over again right now. There is a rebuttal for each of these examples: vitamin A toxicity does not deserve scare tactics. Almost all of the toxicity cases have been poorly documented, unproved. Even the recent studies claiming birth defects after low dose supplementation in pregnancy do not address the more likely role of zinc deficiency, which causes the same type of birth defects. Instead, we hear only that a little vitamin A can damage the fetus and on that suspicion the toxic threshold has been reduced from 50,000 to about 5,000 units and as a result women, who may need vitamin A, are untreated. The cost of this folly: infections, cancer and death in women of childbearing age.

Vitamin B15, also called DMG (dimethylglycine), is one of the few substances to consistently win the praise of parents of children with developmental disorders, especially autism. I have seen it work better than anything else! No other treatment has ever moved my patients with such mental impairment to say: "it's a miracle, doctor." How dare a journalist or anyone without clinical experience condemn this substance, thereby misleading the public. Journalistic arrogance.

From there Brody decried the spending of billions on "self-styled nutritionists and worthless books, magazines and products that claim nutrition can prevent and cure a never-ending list of ailments, ranging in seriousness from fatigue to cancer.” As if healers do it only for the money. Health services are too personal for that sort of thing. How silly. The rapid progress of nutrition and alternative medicine now makes her words seem even sillier. The sad thing is she threw a lot of people off the track. Fate and the New York Times gave her too much authority over their minds—and their lives!

In the article she attacked anyone who takes an unconventional path to nutrition knowledge. Here is a direct quote: "Almost anyone can call himself or herself a 'nutritionist' since licensing is not required. Among those who have are chiropractors, holders of mail-order degrees from non-accredited colleges, book authors and a few ill-informed or unscrupulous physicians who espouse unproven remedies." Ouch! That hurt. I am one of those book authors and a physician too; so in her judgment I must be "ill-informed and unscrupulous."

But she didn’t stop there; her article advised how to detect a nutrition fraud. Again, I quote: "…member of some unrecognized "scientific" society…such as the…Orthomolecular Medical Society...” She attacked the society of which I was then president, and she insulted us by name! I was stunned at the injustice of this attack, and shocked that she also attacked literally every aspect of alternative medicine. History has proven her to be wrong; literally 180º off course, but that was not a consolation at the time.

Other methods to detect quackery: “A name followed by a string of initials that stand for irrelevant degrees, such as N.D. (Doctor of Naturopathy), C.H. (Certified Herbologist), or C.A. (Certified Acupuncturist), D.C. (Doctor of Chiropractic).." She offended me and most everyone else in the alternative medicine field. How did she ever get past this gaffe to become known as a nutrition maven?

I'll stick with direct quotes so as to avoid over-indulgence of my own obvious bias. "Claims that most disease is due to a faulty diet; that most people are poorly nourished; that food processing, prolonged storage, soil depletion and chemical fertilizers are causing malnutrition, or that chemical additives and preservatives are poisoning people." Can you believe it! Nowadays our health authorities agree that nutrition plays a major role in over half of all cases of cancer and almost all heart attacks. Young Jane Brody was in the dark about nutrition and health, but that didn’t stop her from passing judgment on every health professional who took nutrition seriously.

Brody continued her assault on medical nutrition by linking the following actions to quackery: "Claims that a bad diet or a health problem can be countered by taking vitamin or mineral supplements, by eating only 'organic' or 'health' foods, or by taking a false vitamin like B15 (pangamate) or B17 (laetrile). The use of hair analysis as the primary method for detecting a nutritional problem. Hair analysis can be highly misleading; blood and urine tests are far more accurate."

Got the idea? She took a position totally opposed to alternative medicine and totally insulting to all of us who dared to buck the rip-tide of medical conservatism that held back the medical profession from 1940 to 1990, putting nutrition last. This is a major reason for the decline in prestige of the medical profession. I had hoped that during my time as President of the Orthomolecular Medical Society, we could show the American people that modern medicine puts nutrition first.

In hopes of establishing contact with Ms. Brody, I wrote a letter to the New York Times, signing it in my capacity as President of the Orthomolecular Medical Society, the very same that she had insulted in her article. I will quote a section of the letter and remind you that it applies as much today as it did then: "less than 1% of our physicians are qualified to offer reliable counsel in this field. It is the aim of the Orthomolecular Medical Society to correct this situation by providing professional continuing medical education. To defame nutritional medicine by innuendo simply confuses the issues and denies possible health benefits to the people who need to know that all good medicine must begin with nutrition."

I invited Ms. Brody to attend our next professional scientific meeting as my guest so that she could meet some of the faculty I had assembled, including four professors from the University of California (SF) medical school. Did I get an answer? No. My letter was never acknowledged, not even after I called their editorial department. Therefore I contacted a New York lawyer to raise the question of slander because the Times made no attempt to get accurate information about the Orthomolecular Medical Society and the damage they were doing to my colleagues and me was substantial. He advised against such an action and we let it go.

I was hopeful that expanding membership would ultimately give us the power to overcome such insults. Unfortunately, doctors do not join an organization that may damage their image or get them in trouble. Controversy is anathema to doctors.

Fifteen years later Brody has gradually embraced nutrient therapy, regularly writing about research breakthroughs, particularly relative to antioxidants, vitamin E, selenium and other minerals that have been vindicated by large-scale studies. Otherwise she remains quite suspicious of nutritionists. On January 20, 1992 she wrote about "the crucial role of magnesium in the diet." "Deficiencies may be far more common”… "Magnesium, an essential mineral in the human diet, has been all but ignored by nutrition enthusiasts, who tout an alphabet-soup of supplements to correct purported deficiencies, to counter various ailments and to enhance overall health.”

What poppycock. And she knows better! Anyone who knows anything about nutrition medicine knows that magnesium deficiency is common amongst Americans and that treatment with magnesium supplements has proved valuable, not only to correct deficiency but for extra benefits at therapeutic doses in case of cardiac arrhythmia, blood vessel spasm, and asthma. At least she uses the term “enthusiast” rather than quack.

Let's go back to 1972, when my practice was featured in Prevention Magazine as a model for what soon after was called holistic medicine. I was already using computer analysis of diet, blood tests for vitamins and minerals, and hair mineral analysis also. It was clear that many of my patients were low in magnesium and that they were dramatically improved after magnesium therapy.

I didn't think it was a big deal because my professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Ed Flink, was a pioneer magnesium researcher and among the first to advocate its use in clinical practice twenty years before. No wonder then that of the original 200 members of the Orthomolecular Medical Society, four were members of my 1955 medical school graduating class, including Dr. John R. Lee, lately famous for his ground-breaking research in clinical uses of progesterone, especially for treating osteoporosis.

But the local medical society leaders in San Francisco were in another world and they issued a press release: "Although so-called trace elements such as magnesium are necessary for brain function, the amounts required are so minute and so prevalent in ordinary food substances it is almost inconceivable that anybody with any semblance of a normal diet could be lacking in these trace elements."

What is the point of all this? Only that if you want to get sound nutrition information you must learn something of nutrition, health and medicine for yourself and then verify whatever therapy you undertake. To do this you will want to find an experienced orthomolecular practitioner, not an easy task, because, thanks to the Jane Brody and others of her ilk, there aren't many. Why would they join a movement that is still viewed with suspicion by peer review organizations, insurance companies and state medical boards?

Medical journalists, such as Ms. Brody, lack the first-hand experience to comprehend why alternative medicine, including the services of naturopaths, chiropractors acupuncturists, herbologists, hypnotherapists, and massage therapists, is quite satisfying to most of their clients. In fact, alternative medicine without subsidy from health insurance, attracts more patient visits each year than does conventional medicine.

On the other hand, we don’t hear from Ms. Brody about the real shortcomings of conventional medicine that have prompted millions of Americans to look beyond cholesterol and fat for answers to their health concerns. I don't think the public is entirely fooled, despite all the hoopla on issues such as cholesterol, hypertension, mammography and low fat diets. And they may be right. Cholesterol is not a sufficient basis for predicting cardiovascular health; nor is sugar the whole story of diabetes, calcium for osteoporosis, nor iron the sole factor in anemia.

What it comes down to is that the most practical and accurate means to assess health and diagnose disease starts with testing of nutrients in blood and other tissues, including hair. Nutrition diagnosis is ever so much more complete now than when I became a nutrition physician 30 years ago. But one thing has not changed, the basic orthomolecular philosophy of “putting nutrition first.” That is fundamental.

[1] Brody JB: The dangers of nutritional misinformation. New York Times, 5/20? /81.

©2007 Richard A. Kunin, M.D.