An Irreverent Look at the Vitamin Bible
and Its Author (Earl Mindell)
James A. Lowell, Ph.D.
According to the advertisements in the newspapers, I was going to learn “How to Live to Be 100 Plus!"
"It’s free,” said one ad, “and if you are less than a century old, what have you got to lose?” So, since I am not quite that old, off I went, pen and notebook in hand, to a lecture in Tucson conducted by Earl Mindell, R.Ph., Ph.D., “noted nutritionist, pharmacist, lecturer . . . and author of the best selling Earl Mindell’s Vitamin Bible."
The lecture was sponsored by two Great Earth Vitamin Stores located in the Tucson area. Mindell helped found the Great Earth chain of health food stores, which, numbering about 200, is now the nation’s second largest. He has also written Earl Mindell’s Vitamin Bible for Your Kids, Earl Mindell’s Pill Bible, Earl Mindell’s Quick & Easy Guide to Better Health, and Earl Mindell’s Shaping Up with Vitamins—books whose total sales are in the millions.
Mindell claims to hold valid credentials in nutrition. Although he does have a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from North Dakota State University, his Ph.D. is from the University of Beverly Hills, an unaccredited school which lacks a campus or laboratory facilities. During his speech, Mindell also said that he studied at Rutgers University, but representatives in Rutgers’ records office whom I contacted could find no record of this.
Mindell’s Vitamin Bible was written while he was working toward his Ph.D. His adjunct faculty adviser for the project was James Kenney, Ph.D., R.D., who is currently a nutritionist at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica, California. Kenney reviewed the manuscript while tutoring Mindell and told him that it contained over 400 errors, more than 100 of which were important. Kenney told me that most of the errors remain in the published edition. The acknowledgements section of the book recognizes Dr. Kenney for his help and also thanks the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Dairy Council, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Nutrition Foundation, “without whom a project of this scope could never have been completed.” However, the fact that all these prestigious organizations would strenuously disagree with information in the book is not mentioned.
In a section entitled “The Whole Truth,” Vitamin Bible tells what each vitamin and mineral can supposedly do for you and gives advice for self treatment with supplements of many of them. For example, it suggests pantothenic acid for tingling hands and feet, vitamin D for conjunctivitis, and calcium for menstrual cramps. This section also promotes substances which Mindell calls “vitamins” B10, B11, B13, B15, B17, P, T, and U. There is no evidence that any of these substances are essential to humans or that supplements of any of them are beneficial. Furthermore, B15 (pangamic acid) and B17 (laetrile) pose health risks. Another section of the book recommends self-treatment with supplements for more than 50 ailments and conditions including, acne, bad breath, baldness, headaches, measles, mumps, prostatitis, syphilis, gonorrhea and warts.
In Vitamin Bible for Kids, Mindell advises parents who suspect that their child is deficient in any nutrient to consult a “nutritionally oriented doctor” or (if mineral deficiency is suspected) to obtain a hair analysis. Among other things, the book recommends vitamin supplements for acne, bronchitis, athletes foot, canker sores, chicken pox, clumsiness, colitis, dandruff, diabetes, forgetfulness, impetigo, insect bites, prickly heat, poison ivy, stomachaches, tonsillitis, and warts. For multiple sclerosis, it recommends orotic acid, which Mindell refers to as vitamin B13. And for children “whose little white lies are growing darker,” he recommends eliminating sugars, refined starches, and junk foods from the diet and supplementing with B-complex vitamins.
Mindell is co-editor of Keats Publishing Company’s “Good Health Guides,” a large series of booklets promoting dozens of questionable supplements. His fellow editor is Richard A. Passwater, whose “Ph.D.” is from Bernadean University, an nonaccredited correspondence school that was never legally authorized grant any degrees.
Mindell has also written information sheets that are distributed as educational material in health food stores. Although all of them warn that the information they contain “is not intended as medical advice but only as a guide in working with your doctor,” it is clear that health food stores are using them to boost product sales by making claims that would be illegal on product labels.
The Lehigh Valley Committee Against Health Fraud has collected more than 60 of these articles dated between 1980 and 1984. Some of them describe how various vitamins, minerals and amino acids function in the body and provide tidbits on research involving these substances. Others promote such products as ginseng, bee pollen, chelated minerals, kelp (to help the thyroid gland), yucca extract tablets (for arthritis), papaya (to help digestion), octacosonol ("the amazing energy sustainer"), and golden seal root (for stomach and liver troubles).
Most of the information sheets are misleading, and many contain errors. In #63, for example, Mindell states that research done at Temple University in Philadelphia found that rats fed dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) lost weight. What actually happened, however, was that rats who received dosages 50 times greater than those marketed for humans did not lose weight but merely gained less than expected. Great Earth was one of many companies selling DHEA pills as a "fat fighter” until the FDA ordered all DHEA products off the marketplace in the spring of 1985 [see NF 2:30, 2:46, 2:47].
Flyer #44B suggests that supplements of glucomannan (a plant fiber) are an effective appetite suppressant—which they are not. A previous version of this flyer claimed that studies conducted by Judith Stern, D.Sc., of the University of California at Davis, showed that subjects taking glucomannan lost more weight than control subjects. Actually, no significant differences were found between the two groups, and mention of Dr. Stern was deleted after she threatened to take legal action.
Flyer #4B suggests that supplementation with lecithin can prevent heart disease, aid anemia, strengthen weak muscles, reverse psoriasis, improve memory and balance, and even “appears to help multiple sclerosis.” (Mindell sometimes calls lecithin “the Roto-Rooter of the nutritional world” because “it cleans out blood vessel walls.")
Flyer #31 claims that superoxide dismutase (SOD) is an “anti-aging enzyme” which may be effective against arthritis, atherosclerosis, cancer and senility. Even if this were true, SOD in pill form could not possibly be effective. Tests on animals have shown that oral supplementation does not affect tissue SOD activity—a finding easily predictable from the fact that SOD, like all other proteins, would be digested rather than absorbed intact into the body.
Flyers #9A and #9B endorse the theory of Dr. Benjamin Frank that increasing intake of RNA and DNA through dietary measures or supplements will “reverse the aging process.” [Dr. Frank’s No-Aging Diet, popular a decade ago, recommended eating sardines, yeast and other foods rich in these nucleic acids.] Nucleic acids, found in all living matter, are basic to cell reproduction. Like SOD, however, those that are eaten are digested and never reach the cells intact. Moreover, nucleic acids are like specific blueprints. If DNA and RNA from yeasts or sardines could actually work in humans, they would turn them into young yeasts or baby sardines
Mindell says that everyone should take supplements. He claims that foods from the grocery store are depleted of vitamins and minerals and, therefore, are nutritionally inadequate. He says that smokers need extra vitamin C, those who drink alcohol need extra B-vitamins, and that women taking birth control pills need extra B6. During his talk in Tucson, Mindell said he personally takes “20-odd” supplements twice daily. He also said that “natural” vitamins like natural vitamin C with rose hips are better than synthetic ones. Even Linus Pauling, whom Mindell frequently quotes, has pointed out that there is no difference between the two in nutritional value.
Mindell’s lecture included advice that is potentially dangerous. He said, for example, that vitamin A is safe in amounts up to 100,000 IU per day and that any potentially toxic doses carry warnings. Neither of these statements is true. Cases have been reported in which daily dosage with 25,000 IU of vitamin A has caused toxic levels to build up in the body over periods of months or years. And supplements of this strength do not contain warning labels.
Mindell also recommended exclusive use of whole grains and said these cannot be harmful unless massive amounts are eaten. Whole-grain foods are perfectly fine for people who are healthy as long as they don’t eat too many of them. However, whole grains contain phytates, which can prevent mineral absorption. Americans with borderline intakes of some minerals could become mineral deficient by consuming excessive amounts of whole cereal grains and fiber.
Mindell told the audience that 300 milligrams daily of zinc supplementation is safe, but research reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association [246:2188, 1978] shows that dosages of more than 150 milligrams daily may cause serious copper loss. According to Dr. Harold Sandstead, a major zinc researcher, people who take more than 50 milligrams of zinc a day should have their copper levels monitored. In fact, it has been reported that supplements of only 15 milligrams per day can cause above-normal copper loss [Journal of Nutrition 108:1449, 1976].
At one point during his talk, Mindell tried to persuade a member of the audience to follow his advice rather than that of his doctor by claiming that medical doctors are ignorant about vitamins.
Now retired from active management of his stores, Mindell spends much of his time writing, lecturing and appearing on talk shows. Despite the astonishing number of inaccuracies he has been promoting—his ideas are rarely questioned by members of the media who encounter him.
This article was originally published in the June 1986 issue of Nutrition Forum. At that time, Dr. Lowell was a board member of the National Council Against Health Fraud, Professor of Life Sciences at Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona; and an occasional columnist for The Arizona Daily Star.