The Vitamin Healers
A Close Look at Carleton Fredericks
Ralph Lee Smith
"The most widespread and expensive type of quackery in the United States today," George P. Larrick, U.S. Commissioner of Food and Drugs, has said, "is the promotion of vitamin products, special dietary foods, and food supplements. Millions of consumers are being misled concerning their need for such products. Complicating this problem is a vast and growing 'folklore' or 'mythology' of nutrition which is being built up by pseudoscientific literature in books, pamphlets and periodicals. As a result, millions of people are attempting self-medication for imaginary and real illnesses with a multitude of more or less irrational food items. Food quackery today can only be compared to the patent medicine craze which reached its height in the last century."
Larrick's statement summarizes a phenomenon that has become increasingly apparent in recent years: the United States, which has one of the highest standards of nutrition in the world, is perhaps the most neurotic nation in the world about nutrition and health. Millions of well-fed Americans believe that they stand in daily peril of dietary deficiency and that no amount of proper eating of ordinary staple foods will make them safe. These beliefs have become the basis for an immense industry.
The Food and Drug Administration reports: "An estimate made a few years ago that 'health food' rackets cost 10 million Americans over $500 million a year is still believed conservative." Urging the public on is a satellite industry which specializes in the dissemination of dubious, misleading, and false health information. And responding to the insatiable popular interest in these matters, a number of publishers and radio and television stations have be-come involved.
In this as in other scientific fields, the public relies largely on such media since it has no easy regular access to scientific sources.
"The American consumer," says Kenneth L. Miilstead, special assistant to the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, ". . . has been made aware of important nutritional factors and concepts, but his knowledge has not reached the point where he can distinguish between sound nutritional advice and nutritional nonsense." Thus the spread of misinformation has reached far beyond the circle of food faddists and increasingly affects the eating and marketing habits of millions of otherwise well-informed people. More serious, it encourages a kind of self-administered, do-it-yourself therapy some-times involving serious diseases that can be safely treated only by qualified doctors.
To be sure, most of the products in question are not harmful in themselves. So-called "health foods" are for the most pan perfectly nutritious, although some of them arc less so than various staple foods. And generally speaking, vitamins are harmless, although large doses of vitamins A and D can be toxic and even, under certain circumstances, fatal. The social damage inflicted by "food quackery," however, is pervasive and harder to estimate.
Among its principal victims are middle-aged and elderly persons, many of whom can ill afford the extra expense for vitamins, dietary supplements, and "health foods," which often cost more than staple foods and which, they have become convinced, are essential to their health. In addition, medical experts have testified in court and in Congressional hearings that persons in the field have put out questionable or false information about the relation of nutrition to a variety of diseases and conditions. When their views are disputed by established scientists and scientific groups, the Vitamin and health-food promoters tell their followers that scientists, doctors, medical groups, food processors, and the Federal government are involved in a great conspiracy to suppress the truth about health and nutrition in order to protect commercial interests and prevent the circulation of any views but their own.
The 'Foremost Nutritionist'
Perhaps the most influential advocate of vitamin and food therapy is a man named Carlton Fredericks, who is described on the covers of books he has written as "America's Foremost Nutritionist." According to Fredericks, dozens of diseases can be treated by taking vitamins. Five days a week. Fredericks' radio program on health and nutrition, "Living Should Be Fun," is heard on radio stations throughout the United States. It is followed by hundreds of thousands of avid listeners: the cover of one of his recent books says that the program generates ten thousand letters a week to one New York station alone (the program is broadcast on New York's WOR, and is sold to other stations). For four years, Fredericks was an associate professor of nutrition at an Eastern university, and his books on medicine, health, and nutrition have sold millions of copies. Yet he has never taken a course in nutrition. Even more startling, he stands convicted of illegal practice of medicine. All in all, Fredericks' career perhaps deserves more detailed public attention than it has yet had,
Personally, he is an immensely energetic man with a persuasive quality of voice and a charm that his radio listeners, many of them middle-aged and older women, appear to find irresistible. His attitude toward scientists who disagree with him is less charming. Brilliant and aggressive in argument, in many instances he has threatened libel actions against doctors who disagree with him, publicly or privately,
His influence and power continue to grow. In April of this year, for example, he was a star witness at Senate subcommittee hearings on invasions of privacy by government agencies, conducted by Senator Edward V. Long of Missouri, Fredericks depicted himself as a crusader in the field of health, gallantly risking the wrath of Federal authorities to bring the public the truth about health and nutrition that various arms of the government are exerting vast efforts to suppress. He was vitriolic about government regulatory agencies, especially the Food and Drug Administration. Describing his first run-in with FDA "somewhere around 1949," Fredericks said: "This was the beginning of a relentless, unmitigated, uninterrupted effort by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to silence my radio broadcasts, by the use of every device, legal. or tangentially illegal that has occurred to the mind, the fertile mind behind the mimeograph machines in that department."
When he was finished, Senator. Long thanked him for his "very helpful statement" and congratulated him for making his presentation "without any reference to any memorandums or printed material of any kind." "That in itself," said the Senator, "is very refreshing to the committee."
According to FDA, the man now known as Carlton Fredericks was named Harold Fredericks Caplan when he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Alabama in 1931. His major was English, his minor political science. His only science courses were two hours of physiology and eight hours of elementary chemistry to fulfill graduation requirements, After holding miscellaneous jobs he went to work for U,S. Vitamin Corporation in 1937, He describes his position as "Director of Professional Education." "Our information," the FDA stated in an official report, "is that Fredericks, in fact, was hired to write advertising copy, using material supplied to him from scientific sources by people with technical qualifications, who reviewed his writings before publication. Later, Fredericks was sent out to give talks to promote the sale of vitamins. This appears to have been the beginning of his career as a 'nutrition educator.' "
During the 1940's, he set him-self up on his own, with a daily radio program on which he was introduced as an "internationally known nutrition expert." In 1942 he published the first of a number of popular books on personal health and nutrition. On stationery bearing the letterhead "Institute of Nutrition Research, Carlton Fredericks, Executive Director," he answered queries from listeners to his radio program with a form letter, which read in part: "Dear Listener, You recently wrote to me with reference to a food-candy, vitamin-mineral supplement, which I have mentioned in some of my broadcasts. The requests for this supplement have been so numerous, that the manufacturer, who has no facilities to handle individual orders, has asked me to do so for him. The price of this product, which is named FOOD-EX, is $3.00, which includes postage and handling charges. . . . Please write your name and address on the back of this letter, and return it in the enclosed envelope, with cash, money order or check so that I may send your FOOD-EX to you by return mail."
Records of the advertising agency of Kaplan & Bruck, New York, which prepared ads for Food-Ex, show that these ads were drawn up for the Institute of Nutrition Research. The proposed ads carried a return coupon for individual orders of Food-Ex, addressed to Foods Plus, Inc., a vitamin manufacturer, distributor, and retailer, at the same address as the Institute of Nutrition Research. Foods Plus was later to play an important role in Fredericks' career.
Records of the City Magistrates' Court of New York show that Fredericks began diagnosing patients and prescribing for their illnesses. Word of this activity reached the New York State Department of Education, which assigned three special investigators to the case. Each sought and obtained appointments with Fredericks and described her alleged symptoms. One investigator' described her symptoms as poor appetite, drowsiness, gaseousness, depression, night sweats, constipation, an allergy to strawberries, and pain in the left shoulder and arm. "Defendant said that I was lacking certain vitamins but he would have to experiment to find which ones I lacked. . . . Defendant said that mine was not an odd case, that he had many patients with similar complaints but they overcame them." Fredericks then prescribed a diet based on food lists in his book Lessons in Living, ordered vitamins for her, and charged her a ten-dollar fee for the visit.
As a result of this investigation Fredericks was charged by the State of New York with illegal practice of medicine, At first he pleaded not guilty, but then changed his plea to guilty. In April, 1945, he was sentenced to a $500 fine or three months in jail. He paid the fine.
Fredericks then enrolled in New York University's School of Education, receiving all M.A. in 1949 and a Ph.D. in 1955. "His thesis was written in the area of nutrition," says one of the biographical forms distributed by Fredericks to the public. Actually, Fredericks did not take any course in nutrition at New York University, and his Ph.D. thesis contains no research on the chemistry or pharmacology of nutrition. It is a quantitative measurement study in communications and education. Entitled "A Study of the Responses of a Group of Adult Female Listeners to a Series of Educational Radio Programs," it is an analysis of how much of certain things he said on his program was retained by selected persons in his radio audience, and what effect it had on their food-buying habits.
In 1956 he received an appointment as associate professor of nutrition at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, where his course on "Health Education" was required for all B.A. students. It may be worth noting that Fairleigh Dickinson's president was especially interested in nutrition. In 1959, when Fredericks was on the faculty, the university president was listed as third vice-president of a body called the American Academy of Applied Nutrition. This is the parent body of a lay organization known as the American Nutrition Society, of which Carlton Fredericks is a member.
There are several such groups in the United States today, which enjoy no great regard in scientific circles. These two are no exception. Dr. Victor Daniel Herbert, associate director of the Department of Hematology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, associate clinical professor of medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and one of America's foremost qualified nutritionists, was asked about the American Academy of Applied Nutrition while testifying in a recent court action brought by the FDA against Foods Plus:
Q. "Are you familiar with their reputation in the scientific and medical community?"
A. "They have no reputation."
The New Jersey State Nutrition Council soon heard that nursing and nutrition students coming to Columbia from Fredericks' classes at Fairleigh Dickinson appeared to have misleading information on nutrition. The Facts and Fallacies Committee of the council conducted an investigation and in 1958 prepared a confidential report which was sent to the New Jersey State Department of Education. What happened there-after is not a matter of public record. In any event, Fredericks left the faculty of Fairleigh Dickinson in 1960.
The 'Chief Consultant'
Meanwhile, of course, Fredericks had been continuing his broadcasts, and had been appearing in the vitamin catalogues of Foods Plus, Inc., as "Chief Consultant" to the firm. Various catalogues featured his pic-ture and described him as an "internationally famous nutritionist" who had spent "long years of research and practice in the field of scientific nutrition," and who "has either formulated or tested and approved special formulas listed in this catalog."
In 1960, Foods Plus ran into trouble with the Food and Drug Administration. In April, inspectors of the agency seized 204,002 bottles of the firm's various vitamin and mineral preparations and took it to court in New York, charging that ". . . labeling which accompanied the articles was false and misleading" in nu-merous particulars. This "labeling" consisted of the firm's spring catalog and several other booklets used to promote the sale of the products, which stated that the vitamin-mineral preparations were useful in treating dozens of diseases. In addition, FDA branded as false and misleading the implications made in conjunction with all but one of the products:
- "That practically everyone in this country is suffering from, or is in danger of suffering from, a serious dietary deficiency of vitamins and minerals due to foods being grown on depleted soils, and due to storage, processing, refining, shipping, and cooking of foods. . ."
- "That Foods Plus, Inc., was the manufacturer of the vitamin and mineral product—which they offered for sale. . ."
The case was settled by a consent decree, by which Foods Plus reclaimed its warehouseful of pills and agreed to prepare new literature.
The story does not end there, however. Late in 1961, word of a curious set of arrangements involving Carl-ton Fredericks, an outfit called CF Productions, and Curtis Advertising Company, Inc., reached the ears of the Federal Communications Commission. It investigated and found, among other things, that Fredericks had a contract with Foods Plus which "required that he turn over to Foods Plus all mail received as a result of radio, television and other public appearances, with the right in Foods Plus to use such names in the promotion and sale of its products."
Fredericks produced and owned his program "Living Should Be Fun." CF Productions, which syndicated it and sold it to radio stations, was actually wholly owned by officials of Curtis Advertising Company, and the offices of the two firms were at the same address and at one time in the same room. CF Productions (President: Robert D. Nathan) retained Curtis (Director of Radio and Television: Robert D. Nathan) as its advertising agency, which in effect meant that Curtis was its own client. Curtis was also the advertising agency for Foods Plus.
Almost all radio stations buying "Living Should Be Fun" were promised by CF Productions that they would receive an order for Foods Plus commercials with a cash value equal to or greater than the price that the station paid for the program. In effect, the station got the program free—along with Foods Plus commercials, to be sure. It was up to Curtis to try to get the ads placed as near as possible to Fredericks' program. "The scheduling of the Foods Plus spots began with the broadcast of the program, and, when the station ceased broadcasting the program, advertising was canceled," says the FCC report.
During the time that these relationships were in effect, Fredericks vigorously denied that they existed. ". . . you will find that my radio program has absolutely no connection with Foods Plus. . . ," he wrote the publishing company of Thomas Y. Crowell in 1961.
In July, 1962, FCC released its report stating: "Under all the circumstances, it is our conclusion that Foods Plus was a 'sponsor' of 'Living Should Be Fun,' and that in those instances in which the offer of Foods Plus announcements had an effect upon the presentation of the program an appropriate sponsorship identification should have been made...." But Fredericks had moved quickly, In February, 1962, shortly after FCC began its investigation, he terminated his relationship with Foods Plus,
Fredericks' cancellation of his Foods Plus contract, however, came too late to head off trouble in another quarter. In January the Food and Drug Administration had filed a new action against Foods Plus, charging that 42 of the firm's products had been misbranded, both by statements in its 1962 catalog and by information on the relationship of vitamins and minerals to disease given by Carlton Fredericks on his radio broadcasts while his contract with Foods Plus was in effect.
In March, 1965, the court found against Foods Plus on the narrow grounds that the seized products failed to bear adequate instructions on how to use them to treat the conditions for which Fredericks had said that such vitamin-mineral preparations are useful. (The case is currently on appeal.)
Fredericks' name appeared frequently in testimony, His reputation and ability were defended by one medical witness, who referred to him as "outstanding" but who, prior to the trial had found it medically advisable to drop the services of Fredericks' office, Among critical comments was that of Dr, Herbert, who, on being asked if Fredericks was a nutritionist, replied, "No." An objection was overruled, and then:
Q. ", , . why not, doctor?"
A. "I am asked as a scientist, as a nutritionist in the scientific sense whether Dr. Fredericks is a nutritionist, I must answer within my competency as a nutritionist in the scientific sense that Dr, Fredericks is a charlatan,"
This occasioned a long outburst from the defense attorney, who moved that the testimony be struck from the record. The motion was denied by the court.
The proceedings brought many interesting aspects of Fredericks' activities to light, The government charged and the court found that Fredericks had been telling his vast radio audience that vitamins and minerals can be used to treat myriad illnesses, including respiratory ailments, cystic mastitis, club feet, lowered thyroid activity, disturbed elimination, high blood pressure, strokes, rheumatic fever, tooth decay, damaged brain and nerve cells in children, multiple sclerosis, varicose veins, mental disorders, lack of resistance to cancer, epilepsy, shingles, arthritis, gray hair, Mongolian idiotism, sexual frigidity, heart disease, muscular dystrophy, coronary thrombosis, cerebral palsy, diminished vigor, nervousness, tartar on teeth, infertility in women, backache, cramps—and lack of mental resistance to house-to-house salesmen.
FDA, like FCC, was fascinated by the jungle of arrangements involving Fredericks, Foods Plus, Curtis, and CF Productions, Surveying these arrangements, the government concluded that Fredericks' endorsement of Foods Plus products was clearly for merchandising appeal. Far from being specially "formulated" by Carlton Fredericks, Foods Plus products were (according to a 1961 prospectus issued by Shearson, Hammill & Company and cited by the government) a less expensive line of products than those generally available on the market. The government further noted that Fredericks' contract with Foods Plus said nothing about scientific research or product formulation. He was hired as "consultant and to approve, recommend, endorse, and generally aid in the sale and promotion of the products of Foods Plus, , , ."
In April, 1965, Fredericks appeared before the Long Committee to castigate the Federal regulatory agencies. In his testimony he made a number of statements that the committee might well have questioned. For example, to demonstrate the recognition his work had achieved, he told the committee that one of his books had been "translated into braille by the Library of Congress." Fredericks had made this claim a number of times before, and the Food and Drug Administration, in a statement issued in January, 1964, had questioned both its accuracy and its implications: "Two copies of the book have been transcribed into braille by two separate units of the American Red Cross, and donated to the Library's Division of the Blind. The Library of Congress does not make value judgments on its donated books."
It was one of a number of claims made by Fredericks that were challenged in a complaint against him issued by the Federal Trade Commission on October 25, 1965. One of FTC'S domains is false and misleading advertising, and it was concerned with advertising and promotional materials used to sell his program to radio stations and his writings to the public. The complaint said that, contrary to advertising statements:
- Scripts of Fredericks' radio programs ha not been reproduced in braille by, or at the instigation of, the Library of Congress or any other agency of the U.S. government,
- His doctoral thesis was not written on the subject of or in the field of, nor was it concerned with the science of nutrition.
- He was at no time a member of the faculty of New York University, nor has he held the rank of Visiting Lecturer in the College of Pharmacy of Columbia University.
- His radio program has not been broadcast on certain stations which Fredericks said had carried it,
- He has not received the honorary degree of Doctor (of Humanities from an academic institution lawfully entitled or empowered to award such a degree, but on the contrary has been "awarded" such a degree by a "foreign school of theological learning which is not entitled or empowered by its charter to award or grant the same."
Fredericks has moved for dismissal of those portions of the complaint that pertain to his radio broadcasts. At this writing the government had not yet acted on his motion; mean. while Fredericks has been granted an extension of time to reply to the complaint.
In addition to his broadcasts and his books, Fredericks has ranged further afield by endorsing various nationally advertised commercial products, an activity prohibited to the members of at least one recognized scientific association in the field of nutrition, the American Dietetic Association. Thus for Bovril, a long advertisement entitled "Relief From Tiredness! by Dr. Carlton Fredericks, Ph.D.,.. contained his picture and a text that described him as "internationally renowned as educator, author, radio commentator, and nutrition consultant." An advertisement [or Camp Chemical Co., makers of cesspool-cleaning chemicals, which appeared in Reader's Digest, was headed, "Carlton Fredericks, Ph.D., Public Health Authority, says: 'Now Septic Tanks-Cesspools-Drains CAN be Guaranteed Trouble-Free.''' Camp Chemical Co. is listed as a client of Curtis Advertising Company.
The 'Myths' of Nutrition
What, exactly, are the medical and health views advocated by Carlton Fredericks? To begin with, certain of Fredericks' views parallel, wholly or in part, some basic concepts about diet and nutrition that the Food and Drug Administration officially describes as "myths." Three of the "myths" on FDA'S list are:
- Most, if not all, diseases may be caused by faulty diet.
- American soils are impoverished, and they therefore produce foods that are inferior in nutritional value.
- The American food supply is devitalized by overprocessing.
These beliefs, says FDA, are baseless. "The American food supply," says an FDA statement, "is unsurpassed in volume, variety, and nutritional value."
There are some diseases, such as scurvy, beriberi, and goiter, that are caused by dietary deficiency, but these are rare in the U.S. In a recent case now on appeal in the courts involving a vitamin-mineral preparation, the Federal Trade Commission found on the basis of expert testimony that "less than one per cent [of the nation's population] are deficient in vitamins."
Nutrition: Your Key to Good Health, a Fredericks book published in 1964, contains such statements as the following:
"It is true that there is no disease that does not ultimately involve nutrition."
"If we ate foods that were not over processed and overmilled, the [vitamin] capsule might never have been invented."
". . . many of our foods spring from soils which have been overcultivated or underfertilized or both, yielding vegetables and fruits below standard in vitamin-mineral content."
Several leading nutritionists who were queried about these statements described them as misleading or untrue. Other statements from the book on the subject of diet brought flat and indignant rebuttals.
Referring to Fredericks' claim that "there is usefulness in vitamin A intake far beyond your minimum requirements. . . ," one authority wrote: ". . . absolutely no scientific basis in fact. To the contrary, it has been well demonstrated that a vitamin intake far beyond minimal requirements, may result in severe toxicity due to vitamin overdosage."
And again: ". . . the 100,000 units o[ vitamin A daily [which Fredericks says is reported to be helpful in the treatment of acne] is a toxic dose for infants and children, and may also he a toxic dose in some adults. Numerous cases of chronic vitamin A poisoning have been reported in children, associated with chronic ingestion of 50,000 to 500,000 units per day."
On another point the same expert wrote: "Not only is there no acceptable scientific evidence that 'Vitamin A in enormous quantities—as much as 150,000 to 200,000 units a day—has been very helpful in bronchial asthma,' but such quantities are toxic and can produce severe neurologic damage, skin damage, exophthalmos, and eventually even death."
On pages 200-201 of his book, Fredericks states: "One great cause of deficiency is not named here: That is the factor of faulty utilization in the absence of disease: the individual does not utilize foods well because of congenital inability to do so [Fredericks' italics]. From the author's experience with tens of thousands of individuals who respond dramatically to concentrates (after years on very good did), faulty utilization must be very common, for on no other ground can this response be explained. It is particularly interesting to observe the reaction of older people who are given vitamin-mineral concentrates. They do not respond to improved diet—or they have no time to wait for its gradual accumulation of benefits; but the concentrates bring to many middle-aged and aged individuals something approximating a new lease on life."
One expert, a doctor attached to one of New York's great hospitals, challenged the paragraph: "Carlton Fredericks has never published a single scientific paper to support his contention that he has experience with tens of thousands of individuals who respond dramatically to concentrates after years on very good diets. . , . There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support his contention that faulty utilization in the absence of disease is one great cause of deficiency, or to support his contention that this 'great cause' responds to concentrates but not to improved diet."
Cancer, Heart Disease, Etc.
But the experts' sharpest rebuttals were directed at those passages in the book in which Fredericks relates vitamin therapy and/or diet to the cause, prevention, and/or cure of a wide range of diseases, including such tragic afflictions as cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and polio. Although Fredericks sometimes tells people that they should consult a physician before taking vitamins for medicinal purposes, he nevertheless gives extensive information on I he alleged relation of vitamins to disease. When some excerpts from these sections of the book were sent 10 a number of leading nutritionists, some of the sheets came back with the margins liberally decorated with such statements as "not true," "no basis for this," "wrong-false," and "ridiculous." For example, referring to Fredericks' discussion of cancer, one authority wrote:
- "The statement is not true that leukoplakia can be cured with large doses of vitamin B complex or vitamin A.
- "The statement is not true that precancerous lesions of the tongue and mouth have been cured by doses of vitamin B complex."
Among comments on Fredericks' opinions concerning heart disease were:
- "There is no acceptable scientific evidence that coronary thrombosis could have been avoided with vitamin E or vitamin K."
- "There is no scientific evidence to support the contention that vitamin E might safely dissolve a blood clot in a coronary vessel."
And so on.
The Conspiracy Charge
Fredericks is a remarkable and important phenomenon. His targets range from fluoridation to the FDA and his influence is widely felt. Unfortunately, he is far from being alone. A highly active group called the National Health Federation has disseminated information on health and nutrition regarded by many medical authorities and nutritional experts as dubious, while simultaneously keeping up a drumfire attack on Federal enforcement agencies. Like Fredericks, a number of its leading officers and former officers have been involved with commercial vitamin or health-food promotions. A number of them have been the subject of Federal court actions. An FDA report issued in 1963 states that Fred J. Hart, founder and president of the federation, was en. joined in 1954, along with the Electronic Medical Foundation, from distributing thirteen electrical devices charged as misbranded with false claims for the diagnosis and treatment of hundreds of diseases and conditions. In 1961 he was charged with violating the injunction, pleaded "no contest," and was fined $500. V. Earl Irons, cited in the FDA report as chairman of the board of governors, served a one-year prison sentence in 1957 for misbranding Vit-Ra-Tox, a vitamin mixture sold by door-to-door salesmen. Roy F. Paxton, a former director, is the twice-convicted promoter of "Millrue," described by the FDA as a worthless cancer remedy. Andrew G. Rosenberger, who has been listed as "Nutrition Chairman" and a featured speaker at federation conventions, is, according to FDA, "a food faddist and spieler operating under the name Nature Food Centres, at Cambridge, Mass.," who was convicted in 1962 of misbranding dietary products. He and his brother Henry were each fined .$5,000 and Nature Food Centres was fined $10,000. Each of the brothers received a six-month suspended prison sentence and was put on probation for two years. The sentences were upheld by the Court of Appeals.
Fredericks, the National Health Federation, and other leaders in the vitamin-health food field often resort to the conspiracy charge to com-bat their critics. Thus in his book Nutrition, Your Key 10 Good Health, Fredericks states that the FDA has undertaken a "drive against vitamin supplements. . . as a service to the manufacturers of the highly processed foods, who feel rightfully that the act of taking a vitamin supplement is an act of unfaith in their products. . . ," A flier distributed by the New York Chapter of the American Academy of Applied Nutrition, announcing a lecture by Carlton Fredericks that it was sponsoring, says, "Carlton Fredericks unmasks a conspiracy by the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association in collaboration with manufacturers of processed foods to deprive the public of objective and valid information in the field of nutrition." A statement by the National Health Federation reads, "The American Medical Association is attempting to enforce upon the American public an unlimited prior censorship o[ the press on everything involving health. The top echelon of the AMA and the FDA have apparently joined hands in a deliberate, well-organized, criminal conspiracy to enforce a medical monopoly in all matters upon the American people."
The power of the conspiracy charge to demolish critical thought and enlist passionate believers is a potent factor in the success of the vitamin and health-food leaders. It not only serves to discredit responsible medical and government authorities; to the extent that the conspiracy charge is believed, it also removes from the principal figures in the field any onus that might otherwise attach to convictions in court. In this strange upside-down world, every conviction is simply one more proof of the existence of the conspiracy, of its power to suppress the truth.
Meanwhile, both FDA and the AMA's Department of Investigation have long been reporting to the public on promoters of vitamins and health foods. Similarly, AMA'S Council on Foods and Nutrition makes available to the public an exhaustive scientific statement on the body's need for vitamins as well as other basic information on nutrition and diet. Their data and reports, however, are called in question or discounted by the growing number of those who have been persuaded that the AMA is itself a key member of the conspiracy.
The Question of Libel
A reputation for being legally belligerent can sometimes go far to insulate one from critical publicity. And if an attack does appear in print, a threat of libel action will sometimes bring about a full retraction. Carlton Fredericks frequently threatens to take libel action against those who disagree with him. So assiduous has he been in this respect that he even writes threatening letters to physicians who have questioned his ideas in private correspondence. One physician who sent a wire to a radio station protesting that information given by Fredericks was a gross misrepresentation of facts received a Registered letter from him that read in part: "I am amazed that a member of your profession should find time to write libelous telegrams—I thought you would be too busy causing kidney stones with sulfa drugs, jaundice with thorazine, gonaldal [sic] pathology with the tranquillizers. retrolental fibroplasia with overdosage of oxygen, and cirrhosis with oral sulfonamides in diabetes. . . , your wire is of a character which makes it necessary that I refer it to my attorney for possible legal action, . . ."
Other figures in the field are equally aggressive. In 1959 an organization called the Boston Nutrition Society brought suit against Dr. Fredrick J. Stare, chairman of the Department of Nutrition in the Harvard School of Public Health. It had issued a statement to the effect that enriched white bread is both nutritionally worthless and positively harmful. A worried mother wrote to McCall's magazine asking if it was true. McCall's referred the query to Dr. Stare, who minced no words in his reply: "These scare tactics are typical of the food-faddist organizations. . . . From a practical viewpoint in most American diets, dark flour and enriched white flour are the same in food value and they both make important contributions to our diet. To imply or suggest that enriched white flour can cause or contribute to the diseases listed in the clipping is a cruel and reckless fraud."
McCall's published this query and reply. The Boston Nutrition Society sued Dr. Stare but not McCall's. "Originally," wrote Dr. Stare in the AMA journal, "it seemed strange to me that I, rather than McCall's, was being sued. But I soon learned that a plaintiff has the choice of suing either the publisher, or author, or both. In suing me it was quite evident that the Boston Nutrition Society was more interested in quieting me as a critic of food quackery, faddism, and nutrition nonsense than in being awarded a large cash award." If the society had hoped, however. that such a tactic would lead to a settlement or a retraction by Dr. Stare, it was disappointed. Dr. Stare defended himself vigorously and went to court. The jury found in his favor after deliberating little more than fifteen minutes.
Unfortunately, the threat of a libel action can sometimes be effective when brought to bear upon scholaly and scientific publications, especially those sponsored by publicly supported societies and universities. Yet these are the publications in whose pages the issue should be fought out and clarified.
Dr. Dena C. Cederquist, chairman of the Department of Foods and Nutrition at Michigan State University, testified feelingly on this problem hearings on health frauds and quackery held in March, 1964, by a subcommittee of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, under Senator Harrison A. Williams, Jr. She described a paper written by Kenneth L. Milstead of the Food and Dug Administration. "Dr. Milstead presented a clear, concise, descriptive paper relative to food faddism at the American Dietetic Association meeting in Miami in October of 1962, said Dr. Cederquist. "He submitted this paper for publication first to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association and secondly to the Journal of the American Medical Association and both organizations refused to publish it, a paper full of facts. They refused to publish it for fear of being hauled into court in one of those long, drawn-out lawsuits that Dr. Stare [a previous witness before the committee] was talking about, and so this very valuable bit of information which should have gone to all practicing dietitians in the United States, and could well have been read by all physicians, was not made available for publication."
Dr. Cederquist also described to the committee a review by Adelia M. Beeuwkes, associate professor of public health nutrition at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and past president of the American Dietetic Association, which appeared in the association's journal. It criticized certain leaders in the vitamin-health food field. ". . . it is my understanding after this review was printed in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association," said Dr. Cederquist, "they were threatened with the kind of lawsuits the association felt it could not afford to take. So Miss Beeuwkes retracted the truth, and this is the position in which I find myself as an employee of the State. My salary is paid by the State of Michigan to teach, and yet on advice of our lawyer at the university, I did not write a criticism of the book 'Calories Don't Count' [by Dr. Herman Taller], for he said I would be liable and we simply could not afford this kind of thing."
The Limits of Control
The outpouring of dubious information in the health field, abetted by the nation's mass media, poses a social problem that no effective machinery or program has yet been devised to meet. For one thing, the publication of books, regardless of the truth or falsity of their contents, is quite properly protected by the First Amendment.
The dissemination of dubious health information cannot be acted upon by two of the most important Federal regulatory agencies, except under certain conditions. FTC can act on false or misleading statements in this field only if they are made in advertising and promotion; otherwise it is powerless. FDA can act if such statements are made in connection with a commercial or sales activity for specific products, which makes it possible for FDA to regard the statements as labeling for the products. When writings and broadcasts are not used in direct connection with the sale of such products, they are beyond FDA'S reach,
BUT what about the air waves and the Federal Communications Commission? "It is the public's interest which must prevail," FCC Chairman E. William Henry said recently in describing FCC'S view of how the air waves should be regulated. But with specific regard to Carlton Fredericks, is no public interest involved when a person who has been convicted of practicing medicine without a license, and who has never taken a course in the science of nutrition, is called "America's Foremost Nutritionist" and goes on the air waves to "educate" millions of people about their health? Faced with this question, Henry and his administrative assistant, John F, Cushman, said that they were familiar with Fredericks' career. Cushman explained that FCC'S powers extend only to licensees—that is, broadcasting stations --and not to individuals who appear on the air. It is difficult to see what part of the Federal Communications Act, or what. commission rule, if any, a licensee might be violating by airing broadcasts such as those of Carlton Fredericks. The so-called fairness doctrine, involving the allotment of "equal time" to both sides of a controversial issue, would obviously be inappropriate in the area of scientific information.
A more direct approach is conceivable. Chairman Henry stated that despite the problems involved, it was his opinion that if a program involving false information were being offered to the public in the field of health, and if the licensee were fully apprised of this fact, FCC possessed adequate power under the existing statute to take action against the licensee, "It would be difficult," he said. "Nevertheless, it is within the reach of our powers under the present law." Cushman explained that such action would have to be taken under the general provision of the law that requires broadcasters to operate in the public interest.
Both the chairman and his aide pointed out that in enforcing its "public interest" mandate, FCC usually initiates an investigation and takes action only when it receives complaints. It has received no recent complaints about Carlton Fredericks and the matter has therefore lain dormant.
Whether such a criterion of action falls substantially short of fulfilling FCC'S function of protecting the public interest is a question worth exploring. For example, the Food and Drug Administration sent FCC a courtesy copy of the March, 1965, Federal court decision in the Foods Plus case, in which the court found that information on health matters disseminated by Fredericks on the air had caused forty-two of the firm's products to be misbranded. This might have been considered adequate reason for FCC to launch an investigation into all phases of Carlton Fredericks' background, qualifications, and activities, complaints or no complaints,
Also, FCC requires every radio station to demonstrate that its programming has met the test of public interest as a condition for the renewal of its license. The burden of proof rests with the licensee. Under these circumstances, one wonders if the commission should not have circulated the court decision to its licensees, along with other basic information on Fredericks. When asked about Fredericks, James McAleer, director of programming for Radio Station WOR in New York, where Fredericks' program is broadcast, at first denied that Fredericks had a court conviction or that he had never taken a course in nutrition. When told that the record showed otherwise, he said: "You are making a mountain out of a molehill. It's a great program. We pack people in here with it in the afternoon, I wish I had time to give you my philosophy about these things."
In a showdown, the only thing the commission can legally do to assure the discontinuance of a specific program that it regards as contrary to the public interest is to take the station off the air. This is a grotesque method of procedure. One of the most important lessons of the current wave of health misinformation may well be that the Federal Communications Act, written in 1934, needs to be studied and redrawn to give FCC more precise tools to carry out more effectively its mission of assuring the primacy of the public interest.
This is one of many issues which seem to indicate that a full-scale Congressional investigation of the dissemination of false and misleading health information in the United States and its relationship to the multimillion-dollar vitamin and health-food industries would be in order. If and when such an investigation is launched, one can only hope that the investigating committee will show more curiosity about the leading figures in the vitamin and health-food field than Senator Long's committee evinced last April in the, remarkable career of Carlton Fredericks.
This article was originally published in the December 16, 1965 issue of The Reporter. During the 1960s and 1970s, Ralph Lee Smith investigated and wrote about many quackery-related topics. After that, he taught communications at Howard University and developed a writing and editing service, which he still operates.
This article was posted on June 11, 2004.