Tag Archives: Alliance for Natural Health

Amazon ban on – sorry, sales of – herbal products “illegal” – sorry, illegal.

amazonCall the police! A shrieking headline says:

Amazon ban on herbal products ‘illegal’

Wow, really? Let’s look a little closer:

The online retailer Amazon has pulled more than a hundred St John’s wort products, a herbal remedy for depression, after it was approached by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

So the statutory regulatory body approached Amazon, and Amazon pulled the products. And this is supposedly illegal. According to whom? Let’s read on:

The campaign group, the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH),
says the MHRA “overstepped the legal mark” and some of those
107 products should never have been removed.

Oh really. And there’s not quite enough space to note that WDDTY contributor Rob Verkerk is the founder of the ANH, or point out that this is a body founded to promote the interests of the supplement industry, which profits handily from bullshit claims for products like St John’s Wort.

Follow the money. Unless it’s going to your friends.

The MHRA says the products were unlicensed and making
illegal medicinal claims or were inappropriately labelled. It now
plans to contact other on line retail outlets, including eBay, which have been supplying the products.

Statutory regulator enforces regulations shock. Pictures at eleven.

Amazon had two choices: challenge the request, or accede. Amazon chose to accede tot he request. They have lawyers and a metric fuckton of money, so that rather suggests that they accept the MHRA’s view that the marketing claims were illegal and the products were unlicensed.

It’s understood the MHRA acted after being approached
by the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) last
December. The association’s executive director Graham Keen
has described the action as having “a very positive outcome”.

So even some of those selling natural woo, are pissed off by the fraudulent claims of other marketers of natural woo. Interesting.

But the ANH questions the “legitimacy of the forced
product removal” and says that some of the medicinal claims
are “carefully worded health claims that are as yet not nonauthorized by the European Commission”.

Does Rob Verkerk work for the Ministry of Truth? That is some amazing doublespeak there.

It says this latest ban is part of an “ongoing campaign by the
MHRA to attack herbal food supplements without adequate
legal justification”.

Skeptics will be rolling around on the floor laughing at this: the MHRA is notoriously spineless in challenging the dubious claims of natural-woo scammers, this is incredibly rare and is based on clear-cut and flagrant breaches of the law.

How happy would WDDTY be for Big Pharma to sell products with unapproved claims via Amazon, do you think? Answers on a postcard, please.

The Vitamin Wars

Few columns in WDDTY reveal the hypocrisy of the SCAM industry quite so consistently as Rob Verkerk’s. Rob runs the Alliance for Natural Health Europe (ANH-Europe), a SCAM industry lobby group indistinguishable in function and purpose from the lobbying companies used by “big pharma”, but far less scrupulous when it comes to accuracy, because Rob (like many of his contemporaries) not only lobbies for SCAM, he also makes money from SCAM, and makes more money promoting in print the SCAM from which he makes money.

His February 2014 is perfect of its type:

Few Natural-health aficionados would have been unable to miss the media reports about vitamins being a waste of money. They hit every major newspaper, radio and TV station last December.

Yes, it’s a welcome change from the usual credulous nonsense planted by people like Rob Verkerk.

The Times’ science correspondent, Tom Whipple, the journalist that has had his crosshairs focused on this very magazine in separate articles appearing on the 1st October and 2nd November, was the most condemning.

No evidence that Tom Whipple was the most condemning, but to say he has his crosshairs focused on WDDTY is a classic appeal to motives: according to Verkerk, Whipple cannot be trusted because he has an agenda against WDDTY. In fact, the opposite is true: Whipple can be trusted precisely because he has spoken out against the misleading information in WDDTY, rather than either parroting it or ignoring it as most journalists do.

Rob Verkerk, like Lynne McTaggart and all the other contributors to WDDTY, is unable to separate objective scrutiny of false information from suppression of free speech. That’s because they sincerely believe things which are unsupported by scientific evidence, and that’s precisely why any trustworthy health journalist will give overwhelmingly negative coverage to WDDTY.

His piece, in the 17th December edition of the newspaper, declared, “Vitamin pills are a waste of money, experts warn.” The Daily Mail said multivitamins “do nothing to protect us from illness”.

And this is true: for most people eating a healthy balanced diet, supplements are unnecessary. And for those who are not eating a healthy balanced diet, a change of diet is vastly preferable to supplementation.

So who are those experts, and what did they actually reveal or say? The first thing to recognize is that the most damning headlines about vitamin and mineral supplements weren’t generated from any new clinical trials or even analyses of previous trials. They actually came from an opinion piece written as an editorial by a number of scientists and appearing in the same issue of the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine (AIM) that also included three reviews of past studies. Some of the authors had been engaged in previous studies of high-dose synthetic vitamin supplements.

Apparently Rob Verkerk doesn’t understand the process of scientific consensus building. This article summarised several reviews and other evidence, and drew a conclusion. That’s what science does. It’s interesting, though, that a columnist in WDDTY would try to play the “appeal to authority fallacy” card to undermine a published paper – great swathes of WDDTY would be blank if the editors adopted the view that appeals to authority are not reliable.

But this was a serious, highly credible, well-researched article in a major  peer-reviewed journal. That’s why it is so important, and why Verkerk has to spin like crazy to downplay it.

One review, the biggest by far, evaluated 26 studies to see if there was a link between taking typical dosages and forms of multivitamin/ mineral supplements and death from any cause, as well as death from either cancer or heart disease.

Another looked at two studies that evaluated the effects of a multivitamin on reducing cognitive decline in the elderly, and the third investigated whether a multivitamin could reduce cardiovascular events among those who’d already had a heart attack.

Indeed. And the results were underwhelming to say the least.

Any clinicians worth their salt and practising in the field of nutritional medicine, if asked to propose the likely outcomes of the multivitamin interventions evaluated by the three AIM articles, would have said “no chance”. And guess what? That’s just what was found. But this then gave the editorial authors a chance to blast their anti-supplement sentiments through an opinion piece that generated international news headlines.

A physician worth their salt and practising in the field of nutritional medicine, is called a dietician. It’s a protected title, and practitioners are subject to training requirements and statutory regulation. And yes, they would say that the chances of a positive result from precisely the kinds of routine supplementation that makes millions for the SCAM industry in product sales is slim. Multivitamins are, as the article says, probably a complete waste of money. How many shelves in your local pharmacy would that empty?

It’s big business. And the business needs its spin machine – including mouthpieces like Verkerk – to undermine a finding that is in the end neither surprising nor controversial.

The anti-supplement machine is rather well oiled and appears to be wheeled out every couple of years or so, presumably to try to dissuade people from doing too much to manage their own health. Short of banning supplements—something already happening especially within the EU and causing us to lose some of the most efficacious products, which threaten drug sales—this appears to be the favoured strategy among those with this particular agenda.

The pharma shill gambit rides again. What “anti-supplement machine”? When was the last time you saw an advertisement telling you not to buy supplements? When did you last see a campaign to stop shops selling supplements? Who is behind this “anti-supplement machine”? Certainly not “big pharma”, as they own many supplement brands. Whoever it is, they are doing a startlingly inept job: supplements are everywhere, touted by all kinds of credible-looking people using sciencey-sounding words, and they are getting away with it. Nearly a third of the UK population are popping supplements, and according to the evidence they are mainly worthless. That’s not evidence of a well-oiled anti-supplement machine is it?

The statement that this is “presumably to try to dissuade people from doing too much to manage their own health” is an appeal to motives; what Verkerk really means is that promotion of good science (i.e. science talking down the benefit of supplementation) is designed to dissuade people from giving unnecessary money to him, and others like him. The whole point of recent activity around regulatory changes is precisely that people are not managing their own health by taking supplements, they are mainly handing money to charlatans. Hence controls on maximum doses, to provide some control over vitamin megadoseW quacks.

What you don’t read in the papers is what was actually found in the studies. Did you read that a simple multivitamin can lower cancer risk in men by 8 per cent? You probably didn’t read that there were many studies that found positive effects. It’s just when you pool studies that have conflicting results, the very nature of a systematic review of this type, that you run the risk of cancelling out the variable results, even when they may have been due to other factors.

The whole point of a systematic review is that it balances the chance positive findings inevitable in clinical studies, and finds the overall effect to a much greater degree of certainty. As with homeopathy, the number of positive studies is completely irrelevant to the consensus of review studies that there is no credible evidence of effect. The positive studies are not ignored by systematic reviews, they are assessed, weighted according to methodological quality, and factored into the mix.

When the summary finding is no benefit, there’s no point howling about the positive results. The systematic review has already taken account of them. That is, after all, the point.

Also conspicuously absent from the news reports was any discussion of the reasons why most people take a daily multivitamin. They do so because of perceived benefits regarding things like energy levels, athletic performance, mental alertness and immune support.

Really? Where do they get this perception of benefit, given that the reviews find no actual benefit? Ah, wait: it’s a placebo effect caused by people like Verkerk talking up the clinically indefensible products from which he makes such a nice living.

In fact, many of these kinds of relationships have actually been proven scientifically, and have been officially authorized as health claims for use on commercial products EU-wide by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the EU’s highest authority on food safety.And the EFSA is notoriously tough on accepting health claims. They’ve only approved about 250 in total, and most of these are for vitamins and minerals.

Not strictly true, since these approvals often rely on subjective assessments of benefit, but why would this be a problem? If the evidence is there, then the product is licensed and can be sold. If it’s not, then the evidence isn’t there. Verkerk appears to be arguing that because EFSA approves other products of this class, albeit not many, then all products of the class should be sold as if they were covered. Why would that be a good idea?

Another point made in the AIM editorial is that people can get everything they need from their diet.

Well, I agree. But only in theory, or in relation to a tiny section of society who are able to put in huge amounts of effort to source and prepare the best highest-quality foods and eat them consistently, day in, day out.

That is a fantastically implausible claim, and actually it’s the Nirvana fallacy. It is not hard to eat a balanced diet, and if it were then we’d scarcely have survived the harsh evolutionary realities of life. It doesn’t have to be the absolute best (either as defined by dieticians or quack nutritionists), it only has to be good enough.

The idea that a normal diet is substantially deficient in nutrients, is self-evidently bizarre. Vitamins were essentially unknown prior tot he late 18th Century and there is little doubt that the nutritional quality of our diet has improved vastly since then due to refrigeration and other techniques to prevent spoilage.

In practice, many of us fall dismally below optimal levels in one or more nutrients, and population-wide surveys show us that deficiencies in vitamin A (for immunity), vitamin K (for bone health), magnesium (for muscles and energy) and zinc (for immunity) are rampant. Worse than this, many of us carry genetic defects, referred to as ‘single nucleotide polymorphisms’ (SNPs), which mean we benefit from taking above average levels of particular nutrients to compensate. None of this gets a mention of course, despite the fact that this area of nutritional science— nutrigenomics—is one of the most rapidly expanding areas today.

This is a great argument for eating better and a truly terrible argument for buying a product which, according to the evidence, is routinely mis-sold by its proponents.

It seems that newspapers like The Times can only get away with creating headlines out of these issues if they are highly selective about the ‘facts’ and omit doing justice to the commonly accepted principles of standards of journalism and critical, unbiased reporting. I’m confident that most insightful readers will have been able to read past the agenda of the scientists and journalists involved.

You “forgot” to show that they were in the least bit selective. They didn’t toe the vitamin peddlers’ line, but that is a point in their favour rather than against them

What Doctors Don't Tell You
Why don’t doctors tell you to take supplements instead of eating a reasonable balanced diet?

Because doctors, unlike vitamin peddlers, care about your health, not their profits.

The Advertising Standards Authority Exposed

The Advertising Standards Authority Exposed
“The ASA is not a government regulator—it’s a media-industry self-regulator—but it behaves as if it were a government regulator” says the callout box in Rob Verkerk’s opinion piece.

Why does the mouthpiece of the Alliance for Natural Health have such a fixation with a group whose mundane job is to check that advertisements are “legal, decent, honest and truthful”?

The answer probably lies in the sheer number of upheld complaints against the SCAM industry in general and WDDTY advertisers in particular.

In this article Verkerk tries a number of well-worn fallacies in order to advance the thesis that it’s perfectly acceptable for the SCAM industry to substitute belief for fact, because natural.

Continue reading The Advertising Standards Authority Exposed

Older but not healthier

Older but not healthier
Older but not healthier: Ignore the government’s advice about to what eat if you want live to a ripe old age is an article in the November 2013 issue of WDDTY.

It is written by Robert Verkerk, founder of the Alliance for Natural health, a supplement industry pressure group based in the UK.

It advises readers to ignore government advice on nutrition and take instead the advice of a pressure group. Is this a sound approach?

Older but not healthier: 

Ignore the government’s advice about to what eat if you want live to a ripe old age

Robert Verkerk, founder, ANH Europe

National statistics give us a clue of our predicted lifespan on this planet. Most men and women in the UK are expected to live more than 80 years, but relatively few make it beyond 90. That may be better than we were doing 50 years ago, but recent statistics suggest lifespans might be shortening again.

This is true, and is indeed thought to be mainly due to the effects of diet and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Some contend that those who grew up during and shortly after the war, with rationing, have better health as a result.

But mortality statistics show us just one side of the coin. Possibly the more relevant issue is how long we remain healthy and disease-free. As a society more of us are living longer, but with chronic illness.

This is true up to a point: chronic illnesses such as arthritis are age-related and not really preventable at present, whereas type II diabetes is largely caused by lifestyle. The best advice is to eat healthily and exercise moderately. Give or take the occasional fancy bit of dressing-up, this has been the advice for a long time.

Heart disease and diabetes, two of the big killers, are now developing among children, and few of us make it to 70 without cancer, heart disease, diabetes or dementia. This raises the question: How much control do we have over our destiny?

These are two disjoint statements. Childhood obesity is a significant problem, but is separate from the question of, say, cancer, where it’s widely recognised that improved early diagnosis is a significant driver for increased diagnosis. This is not universally thought to be a good thing: Margaret McCartney’s The Patient Paradox details some of the issues with screening for cancer.

The evidence suggests that while it may be more difficult to dramatically alter our lifespan, we can easily reduce our risk of disease and improve our quality of life. Although Big Pharma and modern medicine have yet to come up with a silver bullet that helps us prevent disease to any significant degree, the science is clear on one factor: our choice of diet and lifestyle is the single strongest determinant—genetics apart—of the health quality we experience during our lives.

Let’s unpack that.

  • The evidence suggests that while it may be more difficult to dramatically alter our lifespan, we can easily reduce our risk of disease and improve our quality of life

Yes, we can reduce risks of some diseases and improve quality of life, mainly by eating less and exercising more. But “easily” is a questionable claim, and still the greatest determinant is income. So you could just as well say that we can “easily” reduce our risk of disease and improve our quality of life by becoming richer.

  • Although Big Pharma and modern medicine have yet to come up with a silver bullet that helps us prevent disease to any significant degree

This is rubbish. Leaving aside the subtext of demonising “Big Pharma”, the elimination and prevention of infectious disease, the ability to treat bacterial and other acquired infections, and improved survival from trauma, have all had a major impact on life expectancy. Nobody has died of smallpox, or even contracted it, since the 1970s. The last large poliomyelitis outbreaks in the West were half a century ago. Vaccines have done vastly more to prevent disease than diet ever has or can.

  •  the science is clear on one factor: our choice of diet and lifestyle is the single strongest determinant—genetics apart—of the health quality we experience during our lives

Debatable. The WHO lists three main determinants of health:

  • the social and economic environment,
  • the physical environment, and
  • the person’s individual characteristics and behaviours

The order in which these are placed is a judgement call, but health outcomes are very strongly correlated with income both within and across populations. Put simply, the rich can afford better choices more easily than the poor, and that is directly relevant to this article.

Given the wealth of evidence on this point, you’d think that governments would be bending over backwards to ensure we make the best possible choices to help reduce the future burden on our already overtaxed healthcare system, but they simply pay lip service to the notion. And sometimes their advice is in conflict with the latest scientific views.

They do. And if the advice sometimes lags the latest scientific views, that is because the latest scientific views are not necessarily the consensus scientific views. Most early findings are wrong, constantly following the early findings is a recipe for constantly see-sawing between potentially contradictory poles.

So government advice tends to be small-c conservative. Following the consensus, not the bleeding edge, is prudent.

Guidance on nutrition, for example, can be found in the form of the ‘eatwell plate’ on the NHS Choices website. But nearly 60 per cent of the food recommended—from starchy carbs, milk and dairy to “foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar”—is unnecessary to health and largely responsible for the current type 2 diabetes and obesity epidemics.

The eatwell plate is designed by dieticians (the trained and regulated health professionals) not nutritionists (who are unregulated and often untrained, and may believe in copromancy). It’s not intended to be the minimum or optimum for health, it’s designed to be an achievable goal that improves on the unhealthy choices that might otherwise be the default.

It is not the be-all and end-all of advice on diet, it is a reasonable, pragmatic guide. And it’s not presented as anything else. There is no real evidence that the composition of the eatwell plate is responsible for the prevalence of diabetes; the small segment for sugary junk is there because people actually like it and want to eat it, so it proposes a maximum that such foods should form as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

In other words, you are letting the best (specifically, your narrow vision of “best”) be the enemy of the good.

Yet the industries that make these foods are by far the dominant ones in the food industry, with the ‘Big 10’— Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Danone, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez International (formerly Kraft Foods), General Mills and Associated British Foods, amidst a sea of 1.5 billion food producers worldwide—controlling around 70 per cent of our food choices.

This packs two fallacies into one: appeal to motives and poisoning the well.  These companies are indeed large and influential, something of which ANH are plainly jealous (see below) but there’s no evidence that their influence guides the health advice produced by the NHS.

It is true that in the matter of promoting abject nonsense in sciencey-sounding language, the likes of Danone acknowledge no master. But since precisely the same rhetoric is used by the supplement industry, as represented by ANH, this is a bit of a pot and kettle situation.

These companies exert their influence in many ways, but lobbying and advertising are two of the most important. They also function under several guises: as themselves through their trade associations; or sometimes via third parties, ranging from celebrities to ‘patient groups’ that supposedly represent the interests of those suffering from a wide range of diseases or conditions like diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Bait and switch. They do indeed exert influence, and this is felt in policies. Try to introduce a rule limiting portion sizes of fizzy drinks, and you’ll get an astroturf campaign by return.

But there’s no credible evidence that they use pernicious influence to skew advice given by Alzheimer’s’ patient groups and the like.

The use of celebrity endorsements is of course a staple of the promotion of quackery, too, as we saw with the recent “homeopathy works for me” campaign which aims to use pictures of flowers and butterflies painted onto the bodies of female celebrities, as an alternative to all that tiresome evidence that homeopaths can’t provide.

Most scientists and skeptics would be more than happy to see celebrity endorsement removed from the field of health advice.

There are undoubtedly many behind-closed-doors meetings that few of us ever get to hear about, while the more public interactions are between the large trade associations and both unelected and elected representatives of government—officials and MPs and MEPs, respectively.

Yes, for example the meetings that Prince Charles has had, where he lobbied for alternatives to medicine. And we know that his meetings affected the material published by the NHS, because someone inside the NHS blew the whistle. There’s no evidence that the bogeymen listed above have been doing the same in respect of dietary advice.

One simple rule applies in lobbying: the influence exerted is directly proportional to the size of the company represented. That’s why in the food and natural-health areas, Europe-wide associations like the Association of the European Self-Medication Industry (AESGP), FoodDrinkEurope, the International Life Sciences Institute and Food Supplement Europe, which represent both Big Pharma and Big Food, wield the lion’s share of influence. Smaller associations and groups such as the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-Sized Businesses (UEAPME), ourselves (Alliance for Natural Health Europe) and the European Benefyt Foundation need to work very hard to even be heard.

So ANH are jealous of the influence of larger lobbies and want the same ability to push their agenda. The alternative – reducing lobbying activity – does not seem to be suggested. Why would it be bad for all special interest groups to be excluded, rather than for the special interest groups you like to get a larger slice of the action? This is not explained.

Many who become aware of this reality feel disempowered. But there are two simple things we can do.

First, we can reduce our dependence on products made by these companies. Put simply, that means avoiding processed foods whenever you can. The size and might of these corporations is maintained only if we support them via our wallets.

Fine if you have adequate disposable income. But WDDTY’s core demographic will already be avoiding “processed foods”. Note, though, that “processed food” is a bit like “toxin”, a word that sounds bad and is easy to pin on the things you don’t like, but meaningless in practice. Bread is a “processed food”. Flour is a “processed food”. It’s hard to see how anything other than uncured meat, raw milk and eggs, and fruit, would qualify as being anything other than “processed foods”.

There’s good evidence that processing can be entirely desirable. Pasteurisation of milk is controversial only with extremists. Preservatives mean that meat is much less likely to contain bacteria such as e.coli or salmonella. Obviously these are entirely natural but most people regard them as undesirable nonetheless.

So without needing to write letters to your MP or bearing a placard in an anti-globalization rally, you can make different choices over the way you feed yourself and your loved ones. One of the easiest ways of doing this is to ‘go local’, or choose wisely when you are doing your weekly shop. Try to buy organic fruit and vegetables as much as you can.

Sorry to rain on your parade, but for urban dwellers there is not much in the way of local produce to be had, and evidence of the superiority of organic produce is sadly lacking.

You can subscribe to an organic-box scheme and have your weekly supply of organic fruit, veg and other produce delivered to your door. And for those of a non-vegetarian persuasion, you can buy locally sourced meats at your local butcher.

Or, you know, don’t. If you’re on a limited income you are almost certainly better off buying fresh fruit and vegetables from your local supermarket, than spending the equivalent sum on a reduced quantity of the more expensive organic produce you recommend.

While you may pay a premium for such foods, many find the net cost is no higher mainly because wastage is reduced and the many temptations in supermarket aisles are avoided.

This is simply wishful thinking. Organic produce is more expensive, and organic produce from farmers’ markets is generally more expensive than the equivalent organic produce from supermarkets.

For those yet to experience the pleasure of becoming independent of the Big Ten, you have almost nothing to lose and so much to gain—not least of all, a healthy long life.

Translation: buy produce from our members not their members, it will make you live longer (terms and conditions apply, value of investments may go down as well as up, objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear, we reserve the right to substitute opinion for evidence as we see fit).

What Doctors Don't Tell You
Why don’t doctors tell you that eating organic food will make you live longer?

Because there’s no real evidence it does.

Enhanced by Zemanta