A Critical Look at Carleton Fredericks

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Carlton Fredericks (1910-1987) was described on the covers of some of his books as "America's Foremost Nutritionist." He considered himself an expert and gave copious advice in books and in articles for health-food publications. According to the FDA, however, Fredericks had virtually no nutrition or health science training. He graduated from the University of Alabama in 1931 (under his original name: Harold Frederick Caplan) with a major in English and a minor in political science. His only science courses were two hours of physiology and eight hours of elementary chemistry. He had various jobs until 1937 when he began to write advertising copy for the U.S. Vitamin Corporation and to give sales talks, adopting the title of "nutrition educator." Fredericks described his association with the company in a letter to an FDA official:

Records of the Magistrates' Court of New York City show that Fredericks began diagnosing patients and prescribing vitamins for their illnesses. After agents of the New York State Department of Education consulted him as "patients," Fredericks was charged with unlawful practice of medicine. In 1945, after pleading guilty, he paid a fine of $500 (rather than spend three months in jail) and joined the rolls of those with criminal convictions in connection with nutrition frauds. One investigator reported that Fredericks had pulled several times on her left arm and diagnosed poor circulation in the arm due to "nerve pressure" in her shoulder.

Fredericks then enrolled in New York University's School of Education and received a master's degree in 1949, and a night-school Ph.D. in communications in 1955, without having taken a single course in any subject that would qualify him as a nutritionist. The title of his doctoral thesis was "A Study of the Responses of a Group of Adult Female Listeners to a Series of Educational Radio Programs." These were his own radio programs-broadcast on New York City's WOR and distributed at times to other stations. The WOR broadcasts alone—which spanned thirty years—were reported to generate thousands of letters a week. Fredericks's thesis analyzed how much of certain things he said on his program was retained by its listeners and how it affected their food-buying habits.

According to an article in The Reporter magazine, Fredericks was listed as "Chief Consultant" to Foods Plus, Inc., a vitamin company that ran into trouble with the FDA. In 1960, more than 200,000 bottles of the firm's food-supplement preparations were seized as misbranded because literature accompanying them contained false claims that the preparations were useful in treating dozens of diseases.

In another 1961 case, the Government charged that Fredericks' book Eat, Live and Be Merry constituted labeling that caused vitamin products distributed by Century Foods Company of Varna, Illinois, to be misbranded. The seizure proceedings charged that the book contained false and misleading statements which represented and suggested that the products were effective for preventing and treating a long list of serious diseases. The Government also charged that the book's representation that Fredericks was "America's Foremost Nutritionist" was also false. Fredericks intervened in the matter but withdrew before the case was tried. The Government subsequently obtained a default decree, the seized products were destroyed, and 43 copies of the book were turned over to the Government for use as exhibits.

Fredericks claimed that his radio program did not accept sponsorship from Foods plus or any other vitamin company. However, a 1962 Saturday Evening Post article revealed that Foods Plus advertised regularly on stations that broadcast his programs, paid him a $20,000 consulting fee, and paid much larger amounts for "consulting and other services" to Nutrition Surveys, an entity Fredericks founded that occupied offices at the same address as Foods Plus. The Saturday Evening Post article also noted that Fredericks would urge listeners to write in for free reports published by Nutrition Surveys and that those who did would promptly land on Foods Plus's mailing list. These arrangements prompted the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to investigate whether he was violating government regulations by maintaining a hidden sponsorship. In 1962, the FCC concluded that he had a contract with Foods Plus to turn over all mail received as a result of public appearances so that the company could use the names for marketing purposes.

Fredericks terminated his Foods Plus contract in 1962, about a month after the FDA again charged Foods Plus with misbranding products. The judge who decided this case in 1965 concluded that Fredericks had been telling a vast radio audience that vitamins and minerals could be used to treat more than 50 problems, including arthritis, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and even "lack of mental resistance to house-to-house salesmen." Fredericks' former contract with Foods Plus, the court ruled, made his questionable claims part of the company's product labeling. As an expert witness in the court case, Dr. Victor Herbert described Fredericks as a "charlatan." The defense attorney's objection was overruled after Dr. Herbert read aloud the Random House Dictionary definition of charlatan: "one who pretends to more knowledge than he possesses; quack."

Fredericks was one of the originators of the crusade to discredit sugar. He deftly channeled this single theme into a number of variations that reflected and exploited public concerns about alcoholism, emotional disorders, and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Once, after being introduced on the Merv Griffin Show as a "leading nutritional consultant," Fredericks was asked to estimate the number of Americans suffering from hypoglycemia. His reply, "20 million," had no basis in fact. True hypoglycemia, as a disease, is rare.

For many years, Fredericks wrote a column for Prevention magazine. In 1976, Prevention invested $100,000 to sponsor a series of radio programs distributed free-of-charge to stations throughout the United States. Robert Franklin, the show's producer, told me that the programs generated large numbers of letters from desperately ill people, many of whom seemed to think that Fredericks was a medical doctor. (This is not surprising because generally he was introduced as "Dr. Fredericks.") Franklin was so disgusted by the mail that he decided to syndicate a program that gave reputable advice, and the Harvard University School of Public Health agreed to sponsor it for three years. In a subsequent column in Let's Live magazine, Fredericks stated that he would not do individual consultations by mail, but he would send "nutritional therapy" protocols to physicians who wrote on their professional stationery. Toward the end of his career, he did "nutrition consultations" for $200 each at the offices of Dr. Robert Atkins.

In his books and broadcasts, Fredericks attacked the medical profession and the FDA, cited questionable advice, and attributed a myriad of therapeutic qualities to foods and food supplements. He often used humor to illustrate his points and to ridicule those with whom he disagreed. Overall, he encouraged unsafe degrees of self-diagnosis and self-treatment. A heavy smoker, he died of a heart attack at the age of 76.

This article was revised on March 25, 2012.