Targeting the quackery of Patrick Holford

We could be forgiven if often we feel like Alice after falling down the rabbit-hole. We’re surrounded by a world in which we just don’t seem to fit – too big, too small, too fat, too old. In this confusion we’re easy prey for all manner of “quickety-quacks” with their remedies and fixes and enticing labels saying “Drink me” or “Eat me”.

So opens this wonderful opinion-piece article in The Daily Maverick, where Jacques Rousseau takes aim at trendy nutritionist, Patrick Holford, who is currently in South Africa, presenting a series of seminars relating to the “Feel Good Factor”.

Rousseau writes:

When a seller has a track record of making claims that are (to the best of our knowledge) false, surely we should try to wean ourselves off those goods and those sellers? This question is currently foregrounded in the area of health (think organic food, size zero models, the so-called obesity epidemic and so forth), and embodied in the presence of Patrick Holford (or, to borrow a line from Ben Goldacre, and give Holford his full medical title, “Patrick Holford”).

In case you haven’t heard the promotional advertisements on CapeTalk567 and Radio702, “the Feel Good Factor seminar will help you transform the way you think and feel right now and give you an action plan to prevent memory decline later in life and stay free from depression”. What the seminars apparently will not do is teach you to use punctuation, but perhaps your newly transformed self won’t be too concerned about that.

Of course, transformation doesn’t come cheap and, in this case, it serves as a vehicle for selling plenty of books and plenty of vitamin supplements, thanks to Holford’s South African partner, Dis-Chem. Why should we care, though, if people are made to feel better as a result of these interventions? Because, in this case, we do have evidence that Holford is a huckster and a potentially dangerous one at that.

We can perhaps forgive him for continuing to endorse nutritional supplements generally, despite the exhaustive findings of the Cochrane review from 2008 which, in a meta-analysis of 232 000 people, found that anti-oxidant vitamin pills “do us no good and may be harmful”. We could nitpick about the significance of meta-analysis, or anti-oxidant supplements generally versus other supplements, and so forth. Or, perhaps more sensibly, we could concede that supplements do no good for most people, but that they could still be useful for certain people suffering from certain conditions.

Holford does do this, by the way, in that he has formulated and endorses a range of supplements for four quite specific conditions, namely “children”, “mood”, “weight” and “body”. So if you have one or more of those, he has a pill targeted just for you. For the rest of us, who might feel we haven’t yet achieved “optimum health and vitality”, he offers a concoction labelled “essentials”. No child (or adult, in this case) is left behind.

More worrying, perhaps, is a statement like “AZT is potentially harmful and proving less effective than vitamin C”, which is derived from the research of Rixit Jariwalla, a researcher who was at the time employed by the Dr Rath Research Institute. Rath is well known to South Africans – perhaps particularly those South Africans who had relatives die as a result of shunning (or not being granted easy access to) ARVs in favour of sweet potatoes and garlic.

We could also be concerned by the fact that Holford has no relevant qualifications….

The Daily Maverick: Read more

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