I have written before about my assertion that if you find someone saying that you cannot get all the nutrients you need through food, then you have also found someone selling food supplements. This is the basic scam behind so many nutritionists – they make the process of eating a healthy diet look so formidable and fraught that you had better hedge your bets and scoff a lot of pills – that they can provide for you for a small(ish) fee.
I wish I could automate this rule in the quackometer. It is proving to be a sure rule in identifying quackery. Let’s look at a recent health story in the Daily Mail:
You’re eating the WRONG fruit and veg!
We’ve known for some time that eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day can help protect you against cancer, but now research suggests that if we’re not eating the right sort, it could be a waste of time and money. British researchers believe that most of the produce we eat is low in important cancer-fighting compounds called salvestrols. A typical five-a-day diet would give you only 10 per cent of the beneficial compounds you need to keep cancer at bay.
In research published in the British Naturopathic Journal, Gerry Potter, Professor of Medicinal Chemistry [de Montfort], and Dan Burke, Emeritus Professor of Pharmaceutical Metabolism, explain how salvestrols work.
Have a look to see what the Quakometer makes of this article.
A couple of alarm bells ring here, such as the statement that you are unable to get enough of this through a normal diet, but also the words “naturopathic” and “emeritus”. (More of that later.)
Later in the article, advice is given:
To boost your salvestrol intake you could take a supplement (available from health food stores). Or, simply increase your intake of the following foods…
… and then goes on to give a long list of foods that are hard to remember. But the seed has now been planted. Salvestrols, cancer-fighting, you are never going to get enough, supplements available.
But surely, we have the names of the researchers, they are associated with a UK University (de Montfort) and they are publishing papers. Surely, there must be something in this?
Well, one doesn’t need to dig a lot further to find a few worrying things.
Now ‘salvestrol’ turns up on the UK patents register as a registered trade mark. What would a chemical name be doing there? Well, the registrant is a company called Nature’s Defence Investments Ltd and they are based in Leicester. Now isn’t de Monotfort University based in Leicester?
Let’s have a look at Nature’s Defence. Searching reveals a lot of related web sites, all using the Nature’s Defence, or a fruitforce name, but operating in different countries. All promote the health benefits of salvestrols. All the sites appear to extol the benefits of salvestrols, and may offer training for health care professionals, and offer to sell supplements containing this ‘super-vitamin’. Funnily enough, all the sites appear to involve our Profs Burke and Potter and point back to an address in Leicester.
Now what is the harm in trying to raise money from research you are doing, even to make a lot of money and become rich? Nothing in principle. But in doing so, we the consumer then have the right to question if there is a likely conflict of interest. Scientists have a duty to present all their evidence, good and bad, to give their best unbiased opinions on the nature of their work and to be seen as being objective as possible.
My worry is now that Profs Burke and Potter, having done some interesting work on some unusual chemicals, are heading down the path to the dark side of quackery.
Worrying is the lack of evidence that Salvestrols have any effect on reduction of cancer in humans. Most of the work so far has been done in vitro. That is, some cancer cells have been squirted with the stuff in a dish and, lo and behold, the cells don’t do too well afterwards. Lots of chemicals have this effect on cells, it does not mean that we are looking at the next big cancer cure. The work done in humans has been looking at how salvestrols may be absorbed by digestion and what the metabolism pathways may be like. Results to date suggest there are concerns over how much would actual end up usefully in the body. At this stage, the selling of food supplements as a way of reducing cancer risk looks like it could be overpromotion – quackery.
To be fair, the jury is out. We do not know enough to give clear answers. But as for Burke and Potter, they have acted as if the firing gun has gone and the marketing campaign to the public has begun in earnest. Expect to see SalvestrolsTM in your health food shop before too long.
For me the most worrying aspect is where the latest research on this has been published. We see the latest paper is published in the British Naturopathic Journal. Now naturopathy is something that really get’s the black duck’s quackometer going. Naturopathy appears to be a mish-mash of philosophies of alternative medicine and pseudo-religious beliefs. Not somewhere you would expect the latest best thing in cancer prevention to get serious attention – apart from the health food adicts, the gullible and the desperate.
The publishing of this paper looks more like marketing than science then. Has science lost out here?