Who Wrote About Food for the Brain in The Economist: Conflict of Interest?

In a recent burst of autobiographical disclosure and outrage I posted The Economist: The End of a Childhood Illusion.

I can’t begin to describe my disappointment that The Economist somehow veered from its olympian standards and published a piece of such gob-smacking credulity that I was left waiting for the volte-face punchline that didn’t come. More extraordinary is the fact that The Economist links to Food for the Brain (FFTB) and lends its gravitas to that organisation by carrying this article about its recent conference (you may recall the awfulness of the lamentable Food for the Brain Child Survey 2007, details in further reading).

Treatment on a plate displays shoddy scholarship that is a strong warning sign that there is either a substantial misunderstanding or an undisclosed conflict of interest: this is not typical of The Economist…which makes this article all the more dispiriting.

Thanks to an impeccable source, we have learned the identity of the writer.

Jerome Burne wrote Treatment on a plate for The Economist.

In the original post, I wrote:

That sounds uncannily like the basis for the latest book and book tour by Visiting Professor Patrick Holford, Dr James Braly and David Miller; where the authors discuss sugar and heroin addiction as equivalent and promise to guide you on quitting both. Patrick Holford is the man of countless specialities (e.g., diabetes, autism, schizophrenia, infertility, allergy, depression) who has recently re-branded himself as an addiction expert. The authors provide recipes of supplements that are tailored to particular addictions: take a capsule of this, an IV of that, and watch your cravings leave your body. How to Quit Without Feeling S**t is long on conjecture and thick with anecdotes about 85% recovery rates from addiction but strangely short on trials and even basic quality evidence such as case-studies that have been submitted to peer-review and reputable journals.

Jerome Burne who co-wrote Food Is Better Medicine Than Drugs with Patrick Holford. Patrick Holford who is the CEO of Food for the Brain (FFTB): FFTB held the conference that Jerome Burne wrote up for The Economist. FFTB has incorporated the Brain Bio Centre: a body that promotes its nutritional approach to dealing with mental health disorders and addiction and is included as one of the Nutrition Based Treatment Centres recommended in Patrick Holford’s How to QUIT without feeling s**t website.

How 2 QUIT not only offers advice for individuals but also has a section that touts for more business: CALLING ALL TREATMENT CENTRES. They make a request of people who are not interested in an evidence base (OK, we inserted that last part but it is implicit):

If you work in an addiction treatment centre and would like to find out how to bring the latest nutritional approaches into your treatment centre send your details to us.

Because that is just what the NHS and private addiction centres need, more wibble and less analysis/implementation of what does work for people with addictions.

Jerome Burne’s co-author Patrick Holford is Head of the Brain Bio Centre. He is also Head of Science and Education at Biocare which is part of Elder Pharmaceuticals. Holford has his own range of supplements with Biocare despite his lack of relevant qualifications and despite Biocare’s boast about the credentials of its staff.[a] Biocare was one of the sponsors of the FFTB conference that Jerome Burne reported in The Economist. Holford stands to benefit financially (and with little apparent financial risk to himself) from any take-up of his Supplements and Diet Against Addiction recommendations.

To quote again from the earlier post about (what we now know to be) Jerome Burne’s Treatment on a plate:

Shoddy scholarship, credulous coverage of a conference that is sponsored by supplement manufacturers and companies that offer commercial addiction services, the shadow of Patrick Holford and a regrettable conspiracy-theory-by-the-numbers from Professor Smith, who should have known so much better. What were the writer and the editor of this piece thinking?

It might be possible to guess what the writer was thinking but if the editor was aware of Burne’s potential conflict of interest then it is all the more astonishing that The Economist published this piece. However, if the editor/commissioner in question did not know that Burne had co-authored a book with Holford and that Holford had recently released a book about ‘nutritional approaches to treating addiction’ and is head of a centre that offers such approaches, then we strongly suggest that he or she should ask the nearest 9-year old about Google.

From earlier this year, you may remember how very sensitive Patrick Holford is to the appearance of a conflict of interest. Who can forget the righteous indignation that throbs through Holford’s account of why he did not participate in Ben Goldacre’s Radio 4 programme, The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists:

The approach from Radio 4 was quite aggressive and suggested a preconceived agenda to trash nutritional therapy with a highly-biased presenter, who has won numerous awards funded by the big pharmaceuticals.

Patrick Holford and Jerome Burne, co-authors of Food Is Better Medicine Than Drugs, should really have a chat. You see, one of those Science Writer awards, one of the ones that is “funded by the big pharmaceuticals”, it turns out that Burne wanted one. In 2005 (oddly, at the time when Burne was collaborating with Holford) both Burne and Goldacre were shortlisted for the award and Goldacre won.[b]

Is there a conflict of interest? We couldn’t possibly comment and our sensitivities in such matters seem to be less hair-trigger than those of Patrick Holford. Jerome Burne (Iboga name, Onion Messenger and indeed, his credulity does make one weep) has previous form for writing enthusiastically about one-step cures for addiction. However, as for The Economist,

How are the mighty fallen!


[a] This senior appointment might give the wary some food for thought if they should decide that they need an evidence-based supplement or lifestyle advice and are wondering whether Biocare is an adequate source for either/both. Biocare claims have a team of qualified nutritionists and scientists” (my emphasis) working for them yet they don’t seem to have noticed Holford’s lack of relevant credentials. This rather makes a nonsense of their undertaking to provide science-based information:

We recognize the importance of education in order for the customer, whether a healthcare professional or a member of the public, to make informed choices about what natural substances may be of benefit to them or their patients as part of a healthy lifestyle. BioCare will be launching http://www.biocarescience.co.uk to provide in-depth scientific information on the natural ingredients that make up our unique formulations.

[b] We hear that if one were to judge by Jerome Burne’s performance at the end of Ben Goldacre’s talk at Big Chill, this may still rankle.

Further Reading

Food for the Brain Child Survey 2007: The Promotion
Holford Watch looks at the literature review:
Food for the Brain Child Survey 2007: Review Part 1
Food for the Brain Child Survey 2007: Review Part 2
Food for the Brain Child Survey 2007: Review Part 3
Food for the Brain Child Survey 2007: Review Part 4
Food for the Brain Child Survey 2007: Review Part 5

Holford Watch appeals for help to Professor Holford and two members of the Scientific Advisory Board who approved this report and then looks at the data and analyses:
Food for the Brain Child Survey 2007: Review Part 7
Food for the Brain Child Survey 2007: Review Part 8
Why Don’t Food for the Brain Report Their Survey Results on Supplement Pills Survey: Review Part 9
Food for the Brain Child Survey 2007: Review Part 10




Filed under Food for the brain, Holford, Jerome Burne, patrick holford, supplements

34 responses to “Who Wrote About Food for the Brain in The Economist: Conflict of Interest?

  1. Wulfstan

    Jerome Burne? Almost, but not quite, unbelievable.

    Following your link to Biocare:

    Patrick Holford… is director of the Food for the Brain Foundation and director of the Brain Bio Centre, the Foundation’s treatment centre, where a nutritional approach is used for people with ADHD, depression, schizophrenia and those recovering from addiction.

    “Millions of people struggle unnecessarily with addiction and cravings. We need an army of nutritional therapists up to speed with what really works.” Patrick Holford

    If Biocare knows that they ought to state this then it is even more reprehensible that other people don’t think it is worth mentioning.

    Judging by the current Biocare promo for Holford and Miller’s one-day masterclasses, Nutritional Strategies for Breaking Addiction, this seems to be like something that nutritionists and allied health professionals can pick up in a day.

    It is with fondness that I recall Victoria Derbyshire’s smackdown of Patrick Holford when he complained of other people’s conflict of interest but seemed to have rather a blindspot about his own.

  2. …!?!!?….


    As you rightly point out, can you imagine what the Nutritionistas would have said if this had been the other way around?

    Since Private Eye have previously written about Cher Patrique, I think you should send this off rather evident example of insider back-scratching off to them forthwith. I suspect that from their POV the chance to put the Economist’s feet to the flames would be an added bonus.

  3. !!!
    The Economistgate Affair becomes ever more interesting.

    I trust you’ve approached the Economist about this?

  4. Claire

    Well, the Economist has ever been the house journal of the business world, which is where nutritional therapy is at home.

  5. Wulfstan

    OMG. I’ve just read the link about Jerome Burne and Iboga so now I get the Onion Messenger ‘nym.


    I don’t want to come across as close-minded or inclined to dismiss something because of its origins. Like Jerome Burne says:

    So why isn’t ibogaine part of every drug rehabilitation program…”Although it does have remarkable properties,” says Professor Glick, “from the point of view of the medical establishment there are problems with it.”

    “The original work on it was done by an ex-hippie and one-time drug addict with no background in pharmacology. It’s a naturally occurring plant alkaloid, which no one knows how it works – and it is a powerful hallucinogen.”

    Even so – and how ironic, given the current lack of disclosure – the Onion Messenger Iboga trip is an example of Too Much Sharing.

  6. Oh dear, oh dear. This does tarnish the reputation of The Economist.

    Well, the Economist has ever been the house journal of the business world, which is where nutritional therapy is at home.

    Claire, that is perhaps a bit unfair, while I may not agree with The Economist’s belief in the free market it does have a firm commitment to evidence-based reasoning and is far more progressive on many social issues than would be expected for an establishment journal, besides it does have a deep love of statistics so can’t be all that bad.
    The Economist is also very good at holding its hands up and admitting it was wrong. It even says ‘sorry’ sometimes which is more than most broadsheets do. I hope they admit their mistake over this article and apologise for misleading their readers.

  7. Claire

    Perhaps I was a bit harsh, a hangover perhaps from my dislike of its enthusiasm for the Reagan-Thatcher world view!

  8. Claire

    “The Economist is also very good at holding its hands up and admitting it was wrong. It even says ’sorry’ sometimes which is more than most broadsheets do. I hope they admit their mistake over this article and apologise for misleading their readers”

    It’s now over a month since the article appeared (Oct 16th), but I can’t see anything resembling an apology or explanation on the Economist website. Has anybody checked the print editions?

  9. Wulfstan

    I found this item about the need for CAM to expand its market by employing PR agencies.

    From the section about PR to consumers.

    With such a ripe opportunity to change consumer opinion, surely many PR agencies are salivating at the prospect of getting their hands on a CAM account? Well, not all of them.

    Liz Shanahan, MD of Sante Communications, whose clients include Roche, GlaxoSmithKline, GE Healthcare and Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals says: ‘There is no evidence to convince me that many of these products really work. Until I see that, it is not an area I will go near. I don’t think it is ethical to give people false hopes.’ She cites homeopathy and Chinese medicine as areas the agency would particularly avoid.

    Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of counter-opinions. Jerome Burne, who contributes CAM articles to The Times and is researching a book about drug alternatives, says it is a subject in which Times readers are interested.

    ‘Drugs companies take the line that ‘our stuff is tested and anything alternative is rubbish’,’ he claims. He adds that bullyboy tactics, such as threatening to pull ad spend from magazines deemed critical of Big Pharma, prevent an open debate on the relative merits of CAM and pharma firms’ established products.

    But the PR budgets of pharmaceuticals dwarf those of firms operating in the alternative health sector – a market teeming with small manufacturers.

    It is often the case that only the bigger CAM brands can afford to hire PR agencies.

    It seems like people pay good money to obtain placement in particular media outlets. Or, in the case of Jerome Burne, why pay a PR agency when you can placefavourable articles yourself that do the same job, but under the radar (assuming that the Science Editor or whomever in The Economist didn’t know about it), and (presumably) get paid for it.

  10. The Science Editor of The Economist is aware of the discontent that relates to Jerome Burne’s piece. We can not comment on whether a notice in The Economist will acknowledge this brouhaha.

    Wulfstan – given the letters that Patrick Holford fires off to people and the astonishing text from Martin Walker that he sees fit to host on his website, it is extraordinary that Jerome Burne is so sensitive to the “bullyboy tactics” of others and thinks that it is this, rather than the lack of appropriate evidence, that precludes an “open debate on the relative merits”.

  11. Claire

    It would be reassuring if the Economist could acknowledge that this piece was not as meticulously checked for factual correctness and freedom from conflict of interest as one might wish – especially for an article appearing in the Science/Technology section of a periodical with a formidable reputation. In my view, this is particularly important given the importance the Economist attaches to speaking with a collective voice :

    “Why is it anonymous? Many hands write The Economist, but it speaks with a collective voice. Leaders are discussed, often disputed, each week in meetings that are open to all members of the editorial staff. Journalists often co-operate on articles. And some articles are heavily edited. The main reason for anonymity, however, is a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it. As Geoffrey Crowther, editor from 1938 to 1956, put it, anonymity keeps the editor “not the master but the servant of something far greater than himself. You can call that ancestor-worship if you wish, but it gives to the paper an astonishing momentum of thought and principle.”

  12. Well, from the perspective of the BadSci blogosphere, and on a collective but pseudonymous / anonymous site like Holfordwatch, one can hardly critique the concept of a “collective voice”.

    There is a big “but”, though. The collective voice only works where you can trust the people involved NOT to grind personal axes, and to recuse themselves appropriately when they clearly have a flagrant conflict of interest.

    So if I were The Economist’s Science Editor, I would be cursing Jerome Burne for leaving oth me and The Economist twisting in the wind, not to mention looking utterly idiotic.

    Speaking as a magazine editor, if any of my contributors did this to me you can bet they would never be writing anything for me again. And I still think The Economist should print an apology, as their collective ethics and standards have clearly been compromised.

  13. Claire

    Precisely, Dr Aust. And where the collective voice has the influence and reach of The Economist, safeguarding the integrity of that voice should be paramount. They should print an apology or explanation of how this lapse has occurred, and without too much delay.

  14. The main reason for anonymity, however, is a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it.

    Quick poll – but HolfordWatch couldn’t agree more with this attitude and may well quote it at some time wherever it is that we discuss such things. As Claire, Dr Aust et al point out, the difference is the authority, gravitas, reach, influence etc. of The Economist.

    It was the ‘quality’ of the original piece that disturbed us and the issue of the writer was only pertinent because it displayed such shoddy scholarship that it marked a departure from itself for The Economist and raised the possibility of a conflict of interest because it otherwise seemed to be inexplicable.

    The piece seemed to be heavily infused with Patrick Holford and Holfordisms although he was never actually named and it just struck such an odd note that we felt compelled to write about it.

    So – on balance, we were not surprised to discover that Jerome Burne had written the piece. However, we were shocked that something so poorly researched and with assertions and claims that conflicted with those of the authors/researchers that he cites as authorities somehow made it through The Economist‘s editing and revision process. We still don’t know how this happened.

    To some extent, even if a journalist is regarded as a trusted source by an editor, it is a surprise that this means that The Economist stops checking the material that you submit (or, so it appears).

    We have not heard – but perhaps The Economist doesn’t consider the scholarship to be as shoddy as HolfordWatch does.

  15. Jerome Burne is very interested in the conflict of interest of others, although, yes – they should be highlighted where relevant and where they distort the market for a product. It is interesting that he didn’t consider that his association with Patrick Holford might be considered relevant in this case – particularly if there is a business or set of products that may be involved, albeit indirectly.

    The Drug Pushers.

    When we discover political donors have received special favours from the government, or that accounting firms have an interest in the companies they are auditing, there is rightly a scandal. Equally, MPs who fail to declare their financial interests in the Common’s register are investigated and disciplined. But when medical doctors and researchers declare that a drug is safe and effective, do we have any way of knowing their financial links with the pharmaceutical companies that make the drug? No, we don’t…

    While it is possible that these secret financial relationships between doctors, researchers and the drug companies is endangering lives, it is certain that they are inflating the size of our drugs bill…

    There are signs that things are changing. Several medical journals now require authors to state financial links to the drugs they are writing about…

    Just how tricky sorting out this whole issue is going to be is illustrated by two recent developments. The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine has taken a stern line, declaring that no one with a financial link with a drug can write about it for them. They are now having difficulties finding contributors.

    Threatened by a herb: Researchers are trying to discredit St John’s wort. They are funded by a pharmaceutical company

    What a gullible lot depressed people are. In America they spend $400m a year on the anti-depressant herb St John’s wort that has as much effect as a sugar pill. So says a study published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) last month. A trial, involving 200 people who’d suffered from a “major depression” for at least four weeks, found the herb was no better than a placebo. Time magazine’s follow up last week devoted two pages to the news, including an interview with a self-appointed “quack-buster” who declared that he wasn’t surprised…

    The impartiality of drug-company funded research into herbal medicine must be called in to question. The problems created by herbal medicines are minuscule by comparison, even allowing for some under-reporting. ..

    The pharmaceutical approach to medicine, for all its undoubted scientific brilliance and health benefits, is far from the final word in treatment. A study published last month found that 40% of Aids patients who are receiving the best pharmaceutical companies can offer – protease inhibitors – are also using a range of complementary medicines.

    Instead of occasional bits of research aimed at damaging a competitor, what is needed is a serious and properly funded programme to discover how the obvious benefits of herbal and other complementary treatments can best be put to work. Only 40% of news stories about drug breakthroughs reveal the financial links between drug companies and the researchers involved. Perhaps the really gullible are those who don’t take drug company claims with a big pinch of salt.

    More about that 2nd story with HealthWatch. One of the authors of a study he criticises responds.

    he letter “Threatened by a herb” by Jerome Burne criticizes our study comparing St. Johns Wort extract against placebo in persons with a moderate level of major depression, writes Dr Richard Shelton. The arguments made by the writer essentially state, “A pharmaceutical company funded the study, pharmaceutical companies are bad, therefore the results must be faulty.” It is curious that the writer does not take the same position vis-a-vis studies on St. John’s Wort funded by herbal manufacturers.

    Furthermore, there is no evidence whatsoever that the person who wrote this piece even read the article. There are a number of misstatements and distortions…

    Readers with a good memory may recall that there were similar problems with Food Is Better Medicine Than Drugs in re: the assertions about statins.

    So, as per Jerome Burne’s The Economist article, it is legitimate to complain that Big Pharma will not fund research that will provide competition or diminish their market by curing addiction. However, if Big Pharma does fund research into products such as St John’s Wort it is only because it is providing competition and diminishing their own market and they wish to discredit it. Presumably, despite the lamentable performance of Food for the Brain in conducting and writing up something as simple as the limited research that they have done, they should be given research funding. And this should happen despite the fact that people on their own Scientific Advisory Board recognise that their published research wasn’t a ‘proper job’.

    I hope that is clear.

  16. Wulfstan

    I know it is the Economist Namibia rather than The Economist but you might enjoy this article about Food Is Better Medicine: It is cheaper to eat healthily than buying drugs.

    The optimum nutrition therapy holds mind-boggling implications not only for the treatment of people, but, perhaps even more importantly, for the conceptualization of mental health issues. It is finally possible to break away completely from the disempowering and unscientific chains of the eugenics movement, i.e. The constant emphasis on the alleged genetic origins of human behaviour. The time has come realize how much this was really an outcome of ‘race science’. Genetics play a relatively limited role in mental health issues.
    The prominence of genetics is partly driven by the profit motive. The big pharmaceutical industry benefit from this emphasis since the implication is that genetics were responsible for the ‘chemical imbalances’ of people. The solution is therefore, according to that industry, that chemicals have to restore the balance.

  17. jdc

    Totally agree with the sentiment that what is written is more important than who writes it. If something is a misrepresentation or misconstrual of the truth, we should be able to figure that out without knowing who wrote it.

    In the case of the Economist piece by Jerome Burne, you spotted how awful it was without knowing the name of the author. I would have thought that anonymous work could be critiqued just as easily as attributed work.

    When you know who is responsible for the piece, then certain things may become clear but it seems to me that an author’s name is not necessary in order to be able to tell if what they’ve written is sensible or not.

  18. Claire

    I have to admit I’m not sure it’s as simple as that in this case, jdc, as it seems to me a potential conflict of interest/unstated agenda was allowed to get into print in an influential publication with, I’m told, a track record of accurate and impartial reporting in science and technology. Had the article been by an Economist staff science writer, it would have been a shocking enough example of the decline of media science coverage but, for me, the details of this particular episode raise questions of trust and integrity. So I agree with Dr Aust’s “big but” about trust and conflict of interest in this case.

  19. Wulfstan

    From the miniblog link to Schwartz, Woloshin and Moynihan on medical journalists. They advised that medical journalists can be unduly influenced and should disclose their conflicts of interest etc.

    “Journalists also need to clearly disclose when their sources have ties to industry, whether they are quoting patient groups, opinion leaders, or patients referred to them by an industry public relations office,” says Schwartz. “The problem with compelling anecdotes of treatment success is that they may represent the exception, rather than a more typical experience. This can mislead audiences.”

    To enhance credibility and reestablish trust in the media, the authors recommend similar steps to those being taken in the medical field: journalists and organizations that train journalists should not accept funding or prizes from healthcare industries, and journalists should routinely divulge their own conflicts of interest and those of their sources.

    “The news media plays a vital role,” says Woloshin. “If medical journalists compromise, or appear to compromise, their independence, society loses.”

    Are we to assume that the Science Editor of The Economist thinks that that advice is just so much sanctimonious hot air and piffle?

  20. We couldn’t begin to comment on what the Science Editor of The Economist is thinking. However, much as I agree with the overall thrust, I do find a little too much piety in the Schwartz, Wonoshin and Moynihan article: a little bit too much smugness of those with some job security and ready access to a decent library etc., alongside little sense of their own privilege (but that might be rather too personal and situational).

    However, I do agree with this part, but would argue that it has to work across the entire spectrum of health reporting.

    We suggest that journalism educators should not accept funding from the healthcare and drug industries, that journalists should not accept gifts, awards, or any financial support from the industries they cover, and that journalists should routinely disclose their conflicts of interest and those of their sources.

    If Jerome Burne or The Economist had done any of that, I would still consider the piece to be shoddy scholarship and an unsustainable series of extrapolations from the studies involved or the present research evidence, but there wouldn’t be even the appearance of impropriety.

    However, on the wider point, winning prizes can be an important part of the CV. If the industries concerned don’t fund them, then who else will? Where will the money for promoting excellence in healthcare journalism come from, given that newspapers are shrinking their budgets for specialist staff?

    I don’t know.

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