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Are you looking for professional nutrition advice? You may decide to visit a nutritionist. The impressive diplomas and certificates on his office wall may reassure you that your advisor is well-qualified in his field. But is he?
Or perhaps you've just bought a nutrition book. After discovering that the author has a Ph.D. in nutrition, you may feel confident that the book will present safe, medically sound nutrition information. But will it?
In medicine and most other professional fields, educational standards are controlled by laws which protect the public. But anyone who so chooses may designate himself a "nutritionist." Degrees in nutrition are granted by some of the nation's most respected universities. Such degrees represent the completion of a thorough, scientifically sound training program. Degrees and certificates in nutrition are also granted by less well-known, often unaccredited institutions. What kind of training do these graduates receive? Can they be regarded as reliable sources of nutrition advice?
After reading a magazine article expounding the advice of a local megavitamin and "health" food salesman, I decided to find out more about the school which had awarded his nutrition credentials. Using another address to conceal my affiliation with the Nutrition Department at the Harvard School of Public Health, I enrolled in a correspondence course at Bernadean University.
According to its catalogue, Bernadean University offers health services courses towards certificates in nutrition, naturopathy, massage, iridology, reflexology, acupuncture, diabetes, cancer research, and even natural childbirth. Courses are offer d toward "bachelor's degrees" in fourteen fields, including "self-fulfillment." Training in law is also offered, and the College of Theology grants a 6-credit-hour "degree" with optional ordination as a minister.
Holders of a bachelor's degree can obtain a master's degree if they "write a thesis or some short course for the school." According to the catalogue, any student who satisfactorily completes a course may apply for the designation of "school mentor" to tutor new students. Mentors are also referred to as "Adjunct Professors."
How many people have received degrees from Bernadean? When I wrote to ask, the Office Administrator responded as follows:
Regarding you [sic] request as to the number of students we have, all I can tell you is that we have many, many students all over the country and world. The students start taking one course and then going [sic] into many others. It is really impossible to give you the breakdown.
I enrolled in the "Nutritionist" course, which consisted of two lessons costing $41.00 apiece, and was based on a $12.50 "textbook" called How to Get Well by Paavo Airola, a naturopath who, according to his book jacket, "studied ancient herbal and alternative healing methods during his worldwide travels." His other books include Stop Hair Loss, Swedish Beauty Secrets, How to Keep Slim, Healthy and Young with JuiceFasting, and Are You Confused? After reading his books, one may well be!
When I read the Airola "textbook" for Lesson One, I learned some fascinating health "information." I was told that "overconsumption of salt and sugar are contributing causes of dandruff and hair loss." I learned that "honey possesses miraculous nutritional and medicinal properties ... prevents nutritional anemia, is beneficial in kidney and liver disorders, colds, poor circulation and complexion problems." None of this is true.
I was given advice on remedies for specific conditions. For heart disease: "Periodic blood letting can be considered." For baldness: "Raw egg yokes (sic) twice a week." For dental caries: "Avoid all toothpastes and powders. Detergents in toothpastes are harmful to teeth and gums." For epilepsy: "Live outdoors all of the time, day and night." None of this is sound advice.
Lesson Two included a five-page supplement based mainly on quotes by Rachel Carson and crusaders against processed food. This lesson turned out to be another compendium of misinformation, such as "Soups are best when eaten alone. Soups dilute stomach acids and ferment, and therefore reduce the likelihood of other food being fully mixed with digestive enzymes."
It was remarkably easy to complete these lessons, and obtain my "credentials" as a professional nutritionist. Each Bernadean lesson included a single open-book exam to be returned to the University for grading. The first lesson's exam was true/false; the second was short answer. When I took the first test, I deliberately gave some answers that contradicted information in the school's lesson. My exam was returned to me with a surprisingly high grade, and with a helpful letter from the Office Administrator which stated: "You may use the book for answers as it is an open book course. I just seem to feel that you put the answers in the wrong column."
On the second exam, I again gave some answers that contradicted information in the lesson. To my surprise, I received a grade of 100 percent and an accompanying note congratulating me on the "excellent manner in which you have completed the Nutrition course." I then sent $10 for the "Nutritionist" certificate to hang on my office wall. Although the certificate includes an attractive gold seal and indicates that I graduated "Cum Laude," my colleagues in the Harvard Nutrition Department seem unimpressed by it.
The U.S. Department of Education has defined a diploma mill as "an organization that awards degrees without requiring its students to meet educational standards for such degrees established and traditionally followed by reputable educational institutions." Bernadean University appears to it this description.
Originally housed in Nevada, it was never approved or accredited to offer any courses or degrees. After being closed down in 1976 by the Nevada Commission on Postsecondary Education, Bernadean reopened in California, a state where the only requirement for "authorization" of a school is the filing of an affidavit describing the school's program and stating that there are at least $50,000 in assets. Until recently, however, Bernadean did not even apply for authorization.
According to Robert Welty, consultant to California's Office of Postsecondary Education, the "University" is little more than a dilapidated old building. It had been ordered to cease operations a few months before I enrolled as a student. But a combination of permissive laws, bureaucratic roadblocks and legal delays has enabled it to keep operating.
Mr. Welty told me that Bernadean is attempting to obtain authorization despite its apparent lack of ability to meet the legal requirements. Regardless of the outcome of Bernadean's current action, it appears that I still have plenty of time left to send for more certificates to decorate my office walls. Perhaps I'll buy myself a Ph.D.
This article was published in 1983 in FDA Consumer. At the time it was written, Ms. Aronson was a research and editorial assistant in the Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health.
Bernadean University: A Nutrition
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This article was posted on August 20, 1999.