People Successfully Convinced that Healthy Food Is Expensive So Resorting to Supplement Pills: Patrick Holford and Vitazyme

Patrick Holford on ITV Lunchtime 16 April 2008
Former Visiting Professor Patrick Holford is Head of Science and Education at Biocare so he has a substantial and understandable interest in selling supplements. Creating a large-scale market for supplements depends upon several factors. The factors include convincing people that:

  • they have clinical or ‘sub-clinical’ vitamin or mineral deficiencies
  • the food that is commonly available and forms their regular diet is deficient in vitamins, minerals and other micro-nutrients
  • there is good evidence that supplements improve health or are adequate prophylactics.

All of these claims will be familiar from regular media items or the work of those with self-conferred expertise in nutritionism.

There are recent items in the newspapers that amplify these factors without exploring them. It looks as if the market for supplements is growing as people look to cut back on their health care costs.

Sales of vitamins and nutritional supplements, which have grown consistently for years, have surged in recent months, rising as the stock market has fallen. People are clearly cutting back on many items, from bread and milk to designer jeans and flat-screen televisions, but they are stocking up on pills that they think can spare them expensive doctor visits…

Doctors caution against putting too much faith in supplements…

But science does not seem to have shaken everyone’s faith. Amy Breslin, who is 33 and studying to be a physician’s assistant, has pared back on fresh fruits and vegetables and stocked up instead on fish oil capsules and antioxidant supplements.

“Organics are expensive,” she said at a vitamin store in Los Angeles. “Supplements may be more of a bang for my buck.”

Seriously? Supplements are being promoted and accepted as better value and more beneficial than actual food? Food that presents a full gamut of phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, proteins, essential fats, fibre, etc. etc. irrespective of its organic or non-organic status?

Yes, some own brand supplements are a pound or so a month but Patrick Holford and his ilk do not promote those supplements, they promote their own or lend their endorsement to products that have enough of a margin to allow for suitable commissions: Cherry Active Concentrate (and again as a supposed equivalent of 23 portions of fruit and vegetables if you were to interpret equivalence in a very narrow way).

Consider Holford’s recent excited endorsement of the Vitazyme range of products: each of the products is advertised at £26.45 for a 14 day supply.

Squeezing 52 fruit & veg into one 10ml sachet sounds like magic. And that’s exactly how you’ll feel after taking Vitazyme Energy [Newsletter: The next generation of nutrition, 8 April 2009]

This stupor mundi, Vitazyme® Energy,

[contains] a unique liquid phyto-nutrient blend of 52 types of fruit and vegetable, Vitazyme® Energy gives you vitality for an active mind and body. Quickly absorbed, it helps sustain feelings of energy and endurance.

In the face of such interesting claims it is unfortunate that Holford fails to provide any evidence for these claims of rapid absorption and there is no indication of just how ‘rapidly’ this occurs or how sustained it is, or what plasma levels are modified. Ditto, there is nothing to indicate the the claims about “feelings of energy and endurance” have ever been assessed. It all sounds exciting but the list of ingredients, nutrients and other useful items is missing from the section on ‘additional information’.

Intrigued, we found the ingredients list and nutrient information on the manufacturer’s site.

INGREDIENTS per 2 sachets: 23,9 grams fruit and vegetable (Vitazyme®) mix of apple, asparagus, avocado, banana, bell pepper, blueberry, white cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, cayenne pepper, cherry, Chinese cabbage, corn, cranberry, aubergine, ginger, grape, great burdock, green tea, guava, kiwi fruit, lemon, mango, cantaloupe melon, mulberry, mungbean, orange, papaya, parsley, peach, pear, pineapple, Japanese plum, pumpkin, radish, rapeseed, red raspberry, sesame, adzuki bean, French bean, soybean, spinach, sprouting broccoli, strawberry, tomato, turmeric, turnip, water chestnut, watercress, watermelon and Reishi mushroom; Cordyceps sinensis extract 100 mg…

Nutritional value per 2 sachets = 20ml: vitamin C 60 mg (100% RDA), thiamin (vitamin B1) 2,1 mg (150% RDA), riboflavin (vitamin B2) 0,7 mg (43% RDA), niacin 5,3 mg (29% RDA), vitamin B6 3,6 mg (180% RDA), folic acid 41 mcg (20% RDA), vitamin B12 3,8 mcg (380% RDA), pantothenic acid 4 mg (67% RDA). SOD-like activity 1.000 units.
RDA =Recommended Daily Allowance

Although the manufacturer mentions 20kg of vegetables and fruit to produce 10ml sachets of Vitazyme® it is not clear whether each sachet or even brace of them is the distilled extract of these 20kg. Now, just in case you were wondering about the nutritional benefits of this product, do those numbers look anything like the nutritional profile that you would expect to see from 20 kg of fruit and vegetables? Aren’t they more than a little workaday and plain unspectacular for something that costs around £90 per litre and is promoted as “magic”?

And there is something a little niggling about the profile, given the emphasis on fresh fruit and vegetables.

We are puzzled by the listing of “folic acid” in the nutritional profile. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate; folate is found in foodstuffs such as dark green leafy vegetables. It looks as if folic acid is added at some point during processing which makes sense because this product is fermented[a] and at various stages water is removed which would take water-soluble vitamins such as folate and even vitamin C with it. Looking at the nutritional profile, we wonder if the vitamin C is also added at the final ‘blending’ of the mix, after most of the 540 days of processing have finished (possibly in the form of acerola cherry which is a common source).

Similarly, looking at the profile, it seems plausible that some of the B vitamins are the useful by-products of the fermentation process rather than vitamins from the ‘natural’ starting materials. We at HolfordWatch don’t have a problem with that but Holford is typically opposed to synthetic vitamins and he frequently recommends avoidance of yeast-derived products (probably some of the ones used in the Vitazyme fermentation[a] process).

A study of a similar fruit and vegetable extract product resulted in some useful observations:

the manufacturer acknowledges that some micronutrients are added to restore the levels of micronutrients lost during processing and to ensure uniformity in the final product.

It is entirely sensible that a manufacturer should wish to standardise a product. However, if some of the vitamins in Vitazyme are derived from synthetic sources or the by-product of fermentation, it might be useful if Holford mentioned that somewhere amidst the promotion of “unique liquid phyto-nutrient blend of 52 types of fruit and vegetable”. The rhetoric seems to be about the fruit and vegetables but the derived nutrients from these seem to be unimpressive or even absent in the final product.

As ever, the assumptions are that consumers are typically eating a nutrient-depleted diet (no evidence) and that products such as this will correct unevidenced deficiencies or have a prophylactic effect or therapeutic impact (for which there is no evidence). Holford endorses similar concentrates and ‘super-foods’ such as Cherry Active Concentrate and Mangosteen Juice.

The makers of Vitazyme® Energy advise that their supplement is not intended as a substitute for a healthy, balanced diet. It is easy to see the advantages of these products and others that Holford endorses for Holford’s own finances. However, if consumers are strapped for money and needing to tighten their belts, for £1.89 for the recommended daily intake of this product, plus (say) another £1.89 for Vitazyme® Relax to help you sleep, would it not be tastier and better value for money to spend the £3.78, per person, per day on some actual fruit and vegetables to eat, maybe even a little dark chocolate or good-quality cocoa?


[a] For more than most people ever want to know about fermentation but a fascinating insight into the various processes, bacteria, yeast and fermentation processes, we recommend: Fermented fruit and vegetables: a global perspective.


Filed under patrick holford, supplements

12 responses to “People Successfully Convinced that Healthy Food Is Expensive So Resorting to Supplement Pills: Patrick Holford and Vitazyme

  1. Wulfstan

    I thought of this when I saw a triumphalist item about supplements being recession proof.

    In the same New York Times story last week, a recently sacked hairdresser and beautician outlined why she was heading to the supplement aisles even though she had fewer nickels in her purse than ever.

    I don’t have health insurance, so I can’t go and see a doctor because it’s very expensive,” said 40-year-old Jacqueline Kreiss. “The economy just really put me backward, so I started relying on the vitamins.

    Says it all really. Shame it has taken an economic catastrophe to make people like Jacqueline see the sense the supplements industry has been communicating for decades.

    Says it all that people are so panicked that they are making potentially unwise decisions – like the woman in the NYT piece who is buying supplements rather than purchasing her routine medications. Madness.

    What makes me double mad is that I would never have picked up on the folic acid – folate issue that you highlight. I hope that I would never be so gullible/desperate that I would buy this extract but I had assumed that it was somehow the dried equivalent of 20kg of fruit and vegetables in one or two servings. I doubt that I’m the only person who would never have noticed or would not have known any better.

    • I very much doubt that anyone will have the time or motivation to work through the link to fermented foods but it is fascinating as to the different varieties of fermentation and the various stages and what happens to the nutrient content of the foodstuff during that time, especially the water-soluble vitamins.

      Oddly, there is some indication that folic acid is more bio-available than folate but that is somewhat OT for this point which is the presentation of the product as if it is the equivalent of 52 fruit and vegetables. I have been researching food dehydration recently and that is why the numbers looked slightly off to me (before I realised that the fruit and vegetables are the fermentation medium, they are not dehydrated and powdered into a capsule form).

  2. Nick

    What is the evidence for commonly available foods being deficient in vitamins, minerals and other micro-nutrients?

    I’ve heard that, possibly due to modern farming techniques, vegetables contain less vitamins, minerals and micro-nutrients than they did in the first half of the 20th century. Is there any evidence for this?

    • It’s a complicated answer – however, on balance, we eat a greater range of foods and less spoiled than previous times in history so it may well be argued that our range of nutritional choices is higher quality and more accessible. I strongly recommend Fogel’s The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World.

      Quackometer has an overview of the claims relating to mineral-depleted food.

      We should remember, of course, that in previous times, ‘nutritionists’ decried the habit of adding any form of fertiliser to soil – advocating that only crops from ‘virgin soil’ should be eaten. Ben Goldacre mentions Sylvester Graham in his account of nutritionism:

      I’ve got no great beef with the organic food movement, but it’s still interesting to note that Graham’s health food store – in 1837 – heavily promoted its food as being grown according to “physiological principles” on “virgin unvitiated soil”. This was soil that had not been “subjected” to the “overstimulation” of manure.

      • Nick

        Thanks for your reply.

        I know several people who eat a varied and balanced diet, yet also take vitamin/mineral supplements because they believe modern foods are depleted. If this depletion is just a marketing myth — i.e., there is no good evidence for it — it could severely impact vitamin pill sales, once it becomes widely appreciated.

        Of course, it really should be up to Holford (and other vitamin salespeople) to present *good* evidence that (a) modern food is vitamin- and/or mineral-depleted compared to some earlier time, and (b) the modern diet is deficient in vitamins, minerals and other micro-nutrients. I’m not familiar enough with his work to judge whether he does.

  3. UKdietitian

    A brilliant expose of nutritional myths, markets and marketeers.
    Excellent HW

    • As ever, your visit is a delight Professor UK Dietitian. If we may, we do have one other small baffling matter to clear up. We have to admit to being somewhat hazy on SOD-like units although there is a certain familiarity with superoxide dismutase and physiology. Leaving aside many other issues, in default of enteric coating or other such protective mechanisms, isn’t SOD supposed to be absorbed in the small intestine – in which case, how are these ‘SOD-like units’ supposed to survive the transition through the stomach and the exposure to the acidic environment?

  4. presnat

    I do this. I buy what I tell myself I can afford and take a multivitamin to compensate.

    • Fair enough, of course, it’s not clear that a multivitamin can compensate for dietary depredations nor that some supplements contain bioavailable vitamins or minerals – never mind all the useful micro-nutrients from food.

  5. sharina

    I was thinking about buying some of this because I don’t have time to eat well. But it doesn’t look like you get any more benefit than you would from a multivit.

  6. And eating a healthy/healthier diet would likely be a better option. Even if time’s short, I don’t think it would take much longer to eat some fruit/veg or a salad than it would do to dissolve and drink the Vitazyme powder. I’m sure the food would be tastier, too :)

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