Holford ??!!s

Here we highlight Holford’s Howlers: remarkable mistakes have been brought to his attention, on this blog and elsewhere. Most of these he has – to the best of our knowledge – yet to retract, though if we list any Howlers where we know that Holford did revise his claims in response to Holford Watch criticism we will make this clear. There’s a lot of content that needs to go on this page – some of it already on the blog, some of it we haven’t got round to writing yet – so it will be very much under construction for some time.

  • Allergies/Intolerances. Patrick Holford has written at length about issues of food allergy and intolerance: it is one of the more long-standing and ill-founded Holford Myths. Unfortunately, he often makes the basic error of conflating allergy and intolerance. Holford also recommends unproven food intolerance tests and allergy/intolerance treatments.
  • Antioxidants. A Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) metanalysis (Volume 285(1), 3 January 2001, pp 67-72) showed that taking certain antioxidant vitamin pills may increase mortality. Holford issued a ‘critique’ of this study, making a number of basic errors – including, apparently, confusion as to what constitutes a randomised trial.
  • Autism. This seems to be a special interest of Holford’s, and there’s way to many autism-related Holford Howlers for us to summarise here. One of the worse issues, though, is MMR – Holford’s account of the ‘evidence’ of a link between MMR and autism is horrifyingly shoddy. The treatments that Holford recommends are also worrying: he believes that the off-label use of secretin (a drug that trials show to perform no better than, or slightly worse than, placebo) is “worth considering”.
  • Competing Interests. Holford is worried by the way competing interests can distort science: for example, he falsely accuses Prof. Colquhoun of having competing interests in the pharmaceutical industry, and argues that drug companies sometimes “set up…trials, pay the researchers who conduct them and then sometimes refuse to publish the data if it is not favourable”. However, he has previously neglected to declare his competing interests in curcumin sales when writing a BMJ rapid response. Although Holford argues that he just benefits “modestly…from supplement sales”, his Health Products for Life company (which sells supplements) was reportedly bought by NeutraHealth for a total consideration of £464,000.
  • Food for the Brain (FFTB). Holford is CEO of this charity, which is working to introduce ‘nutritional’ ideas into Britain’s schools. While Holford Watch is delighted to see initiatives to improve the diets of children, we fear that the charity’s unscientific approach and practices, their associations with very controversial sources of medical opinion, and the links between FFTB and supplement businesses may subvert these aims and even do children harm. We have concerns about the quality of Food for the Brain’s nutritional advice, and the quality and ethics of the FFTB school projects reported on Tonight with Trevor McDonald. We are also unconvinced that FFTB is an appropriate recipient of four figure donations from public funds.
  • HIV/AIDS. Holford acknowledges that “there is no evidence” that Vitamin C is more effective than AZT at treating AIDS. However, this does not stop him from claiming that “vitamin C has been shown to outperform AZT in lab studies” (in an article where he also argues that Vitamin C is a promising treatment for bird flu in humans).  Given that Holford regularly speaks in South Africa, he might like to clarify his position on HIV/AIDS.
  • Maths. Holford sometimes seems to struggle with numbers. Holford appears to believe that the amount of fish oil and mercury in our diets are very important; however, at least two editions of his Optimum Nutrition for the Mind book have got the calculations of the mercury:omega 3 ration in different fishes badly wrong, at a very basic level. Likewise, when evaluating the (dis)benefits of statins Holford makes serious mistakes when handling of the Number Needed to Treat figures – leading him to some surprising, and unjustified, conclusions.
  • QLink Pendants. These pendants are sold as protection against the supposed risk of EMR. Holford sounds very keen on them: he argues that “The scientific proof is deeply impressive…This revolutionary pendant provides continuous support against EMR via a microchip which resonates at the same frequencies as the body’s own energetic field.” Sounds cool, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, when Ben Goldacre looked inside a QLink he found it did not emit any interesting ‘frequencies’ and contains a “coil connected to nothing. And a zero-ohm resistor, which costs half a penny, and is connected to nothing.” Health Products for Life previously (though no longer) had these on sale for £69.99.
  • Vaccination. This is appears to be another special interest of Holford’s. Unfortunately, this interest – while it does lead Holford to be pretty sceptical about vaccination – often does not extend to providing his readers with reliable sources of information. The type of “hard evidence” offered by Holford includes, for example, a reference to a (broken) URL, which appears to have previously hosted the results of a survey of a relatively small number of members of vaccine and parent groups. On the other hand, while Holford is sceptical about the type of vaccines which can effectively prevent illness, he is more positive about homeopathic meningitis vaccinations (despite the fact that meningitis can kill and there is no good evidence that homeopathic vaccinations work, or even a plausible mechanism through which they might work).

132 responses to “Holford ??!!s

  1. I cannot understand your antagonistic attitude towards Patrick Holfords work. Perhaps you should talk to some of the people his ground breaking nutritional advice has helped.
    As for clinical trials and research it is a well known fact that most medical research is flawed and some is even based in pure fiction, driven by pharmaceutical companies.
    I believe Patrick Holford is an honest, ethical indevidual with exceptional qualities and great compassion.

  2. How odd that you think that a rigorous scrutiny of his scientific research etc. is antagonistic.

    I believe Patrick Holford is an honest, ethical indevidual with exceptional qualities and great compassion.

    I’m sure that children who have been labelled stupid or thick by him are reassured by your assertion. As must the people who are kept busy updating Holford’s CV and profile to keep up with necessary revisions.

    However, I am genuinely interested in why you have such faith in his advice etc. and invite you to share any experiences that are not too personal for public consumption.

  3. symball

    Hi Pam- I’m a little worried that you think that clinical research is fiction. There might be some bias towards a companies product because of non-reporting of negative results, but the regulatory bodies are very strict about claims that cannot be backed up by properly designed and performed trials. Compare this to the PR stunts performed by food for the brain organisation. Mr Holford has some double standards with regards to evidence and it is sites like this that help to point this out for those who might otherwise take his ‘words of wisdom’ at face value.

  4. Hi Symball, I agree. I am a little disturbed by the mainstream media’s preference for a Sesame Street version of the evidence (good foods, bad foods and because I say so) rather than any feeling that a regulated, researched approach is preferable. It is disheartening when this appears to influence the public discourse about the evidence.

    Yes, there are flaws in the current system – but to paraphrase the quotation about democracy – it seems to be better than all other currently available approaches.

  5. LeeT

    Interesting article from “The Daily Mail” about alternative medicine. An academic has been subjecting some of the claims of alternative medicine to the scrutiny of scientific analysis.


    Are you the same Pam Alford who left a comment at the bottom of the article?

    I am sure Patrick Holford is a jolly nice chap. I have had experience of nutritional therapists. Most of them seem to be ethical with an interest in using nutrition to help people. All this website is doing is looking at the scientific evidence for the claims made.

    As many have posted with their experiences of alternative therapists let me share an experience of mine …. In 1995 I was feeling unwell and noticed some red spots on my arm. The doctor was called and arrived within half an hour. He diagnosed meningitis, an ambulance arrived and I was put in an isolation ward. Being an arts graduate I have no idea what was done to me, but within a week I was out of hospital. Thank you modern medicine !!!

  6. Good grief, LeeT, well I’m relieved that you (presumably) recovered so well from meningitis.

    I don’t know why so many people equate ‘niceness’ with ‘being right’ or a robust enquiry into claims of scientific excellence as being antagonistic.

  7. Pingback: Patrick Holford Reports Remarkable Results for DPA and Seal Oil « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  8. Tom

    Wow you guys sure have put a lot of effort and energy into putting down one person!!! What is your motivation????

  9. “What is your motivation????” Ooh I dunno Tom, how about a desire to prevent the spread of misinformation? Or could it be a niggling feeling of irritation at seeing inaccuracies plastered all over the newspapers? Maybe it is the fear that someone might take Patrick’s advice over something serious. Like, say, if Mr Holford (just as a for instance) claimed that a homeopathic remedy could protect children against meningitis. I mean, not that Patrick would do such a thing. [Hint – look under ‘v’ for vaccination].

  10. Louise

    Im very disappointed to see that Nutritional therapy is being misrepresented as a ‘snake oil’ remedy. Im in my third and final year of my Nutritional therapy diploma course, which I hope to convert to a degree with a further year of study. Ive found the course in-depth, always evidence-based and well referenced. You may be interested to know that BANT is not the regulatory body, that is in fact the NTC (Nutritional therapy Council). Nutritional Therapy is not Government regulated, but self regulated, as are other professions like Dentistry (GDC) and Medicine (GMC). It is true that there are courses offering different levels of study, and the NTC are in the process of finalising accreditation. For further information, please refer to their website nutritionaltherapycouncil.org.uk which details their commitment to ‘codes of performance and ethics’ and their ‘scientific advisory committee’. I wish you good health and a continuation of your interest into Nutritional Therapy.

  11. Oh dear Louise – another nutritionista with the research and critical-thinking skills to advertise the efficacy (truly) of multiple supplements. See my comment to Jazza on similar matters.

    Ive found the course in-depth, always evidence-based and well referenced.

    It really doesn’t sound as if you know any better. Seriously, as per Jazza, do look at some of the issues covered on this blog: Prof Patrick Holford does not understand NNT or how to check a research finding (as above); can’t quote mortality statistics correctly (as above). Do tell me more about the sound evidence-base and references for IgG food intolerance testing and let us all know why they should outweigh the expert scientific opinion expressed in the House of Lords ruling and the recent reprimand handed down by the ASA.

    Did you seriously just compare an ION Diploma and BANT to the rigour of training as a doctor or dentist and their professional bodies.? Hint – search for BANT on this blog. Also, search for snake-oil and consider whether your comment still applies.

    In the spirit of your final sentence, I wish you a much-needed evolution of your research skills.

  12. LeeT


    I am very pleased to hear that you intend to convert your diploma in to an honours degree. From what I have seen of the websites of Dip IONs very few of them intend to do so.

    It is simply NOT true to say that doctors are self-regulated through the GMC. The organisation later renamed the GMC was set up by The Medical Act 1858. Since 2003 it has been answerable to “The Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence” which is answerable to parliament which is ultimately answerable to us. (Incidentally, the CHRE has the power to refer fitness to practice decisions of the GMC to the High Court i.e a kind of judicial review.) Lay members of the GMC take up 14 of the 35 places on its council. One of them is Kevin Barron MP, the chair of the House of Commons Health Select Committee. In contrast the NTC has set itself the target of having 1/3 lay membership of its council. Unfortunately, as far as I can see the website does not tell us – (1) who they are or (2) when or how they were elected or appointed. Can anyone help me here?

    So what do we do if we want to register a complaint? “The Transitional Register is in place until 2007 while all practitioners are being assessed to meet the competencies laid down in the National Occupational Standards (“grandparenting”). Until this process is complete, any member of the public wishing to make a complaint about a practitioner should be in touch with the Ethics Committee of the practitioner’s professional body.” Oh dear. Presumably we should refer to these folks http://www.bant.org.uk/bant/jsp/ethicsCommittee.faces Not sure who the lay member is though ….

    Never mind though as the NTC is recruiting accreditation assessors …..

    BANT does tell us on its own website that “The cost of statutory regulation may be disproportionate to the rewards expected and a voluntary system of self-regulation is probably adequate in our current case.”

    All looks much very much like a work in progress to me. Not that I would mind, except apparently the Department of Health awarded the NTC £900,000 of our money to finance this project ……. Hopefully, there will be more information in 2008 about what they have been up to. Meanwhile Happy 150th Birthday to the GMC.

  13. Andy.

    There seems to much defensiveness being expressed on this forum relating to arguments both for or against a particular ‘position’. This is only natural.All dogmas are by their very nature incompletely true.

    My own feeling is that this defensiveness (fear?) may well gather its strength upon the shifting of vested interests.

    One such example of shifting ground is the continuing ‘disempowerment’ (I don’t like that word either!) of health department professionals such as doctors, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, (even dieticians perhaps?). I speak from personal experience.

    Such disempowerment has a bearing on the public’s perception of the value of orthodox medicine which is -rightly or wrongly- increasingly perceived as being too ‘production line’ (i.e insufficiently holistic practice).

    When you relate this to your own personal experience as a professional over the years you may well disagree. I respect your right to express your own subjective opinion in the same manner that I have expressed mine. We are all coming from some angle or other depending upon our individual experiences.

    It is my belief that the growth of the private sector with respect to health/nutrition provision and advice has only served to further foster these feeling of insecurity by state registered health professionals.

    The over confident ‘orthodox medical establishment’ (for want of a better turn of phrase) do need to be vigorously challenged and that this is a healthy manifestation of an evolving world view.

    It is a truism to say that the ‘classical medical model’ (again my apologies for such ugly phrasing) is the most ‘effective’ approach that we currently have on this planet with respect to relieving suffering at the physical level.

    However most of the time the source of the problem is not addressed at a very deep level. The symptoms are generally suppressed.This is true in the area of nutrition as it is in other area of health. This is admittedly a generalisation but holds its worth.

    If merely considered in this vein orthodox medicine is indeed more effective than the various ‘alternative’ approaches currently on offer. These alternatives can best be termed as being ‘complementary’ to the orthodoxy. That is to say that they may well support and strengthen the healing process as perceived subjectively by the patient.

    Put simply if you have an illness first see a doctor and he may refer you (if appropriate) to a dietician.If the state registered dietician can not help you you have the right to explore further avenues which may well turn out to be more effective for you (as an individual experiencing the result.)

    Medical orthodoxy relating to nutritional health is in other words the least all all evils. I take all research findings with a healthy pinch of salt irrespective of whether it is so called ‘proper'(!) research or research by professionals who kick up sand such as Prof. Holford. This I believe is a healthy rather than an overly cynical approach to research.

    There are as I say so many vested interests at work from both sides of the debate. This is human nature for you with all its’ flaws and in all its’ glory.

    The great sprititual sages (those few at any rate who I am open minded enough to feel that they might well be genuine!) reassure us that ‘all is ultimately for the best’. They are either deluded or have their finger on the pulse. My own intuition tells me that they probably have their finger on the pulse. Time will tell as humans evolve.

    It is unfortunate that current medical and scientific knowledge does not yet allow us to adequately ‘objectively’ assess the often outlandish claims of those who advocate practical spritual practice (such as meditation) as a medium for self healing at all levels.

    Aristotelian science may well not be up to the job of judging on this issue as it is limited by it’s own tunnel vision. (a finger tip can not feel itself)

    My own personal understanding (standing under) of meditation has meant the body more effectively using it’s energy and (or to put it in a more tangible language) it’s nutrition!. However this is only my personal experience and I do not push it as an ‘evidence’ towards you.

    Effective meditation practice is just one of many tools in a nutritional tool box and if we are to be honest will only be acessible to the lucky few. It does not replace medicine.

    Suffering is suffering. It cannot be glossed over. Although not absolutely true in it’s existence (that is to say it has no identity complete within itself) it does seem real to us in our experiencing of it.

    Zen is indeed very wise to say that ‘a mountain is just a mountain’. However in my own experience you do not tend to feel the truth of that when you are suffering as there is the ‘you’ and the ‘suffering’.!!

    Prof. Holford is a man who seems to me to have many useful and positive qualities as a human being. (e.g energy, confidence, vision, persistance).

    I would like to say at this point that I am not affiliated with Prof. Holford or ION in any way.I read his views in an open minded way but not so open minded that my brain falls out!.As to his motive of his heart I am not in a position to judge.

    Whether we like it or not Prof. Holford is an influencial professional in the field of nutrition.The fact that he is ‘making waves’ should perhaps be viewed as being positive as it attracts debate such as this and more importantly spurs on research in the area of non communicable health.All inputs have the potential to be confusing. Let us not personalise this excessively.

    Time will tell if Prof.Holford is on the right track and by this I am talking about a few decades rather than a few years.

    With best wishes to you all. Andy.

  14. Prof.Holford is on the right track and by this I am talking about a few decades rather than a few years.

    You can see for yourself, right now, that there are basic mistakes in mental arithmetic, quoting scientific papers, asserting that there is scientific evidence when there isn’t – there is absolutely no need to wait decades, just follow the above links.

    No more time is required, just an ability to read and follow a basic argument; plus a willingness to go and check the primary sources.

  15. superburgermuncher

    Can i ask if you are in practice and obtaining expeience, rather than just looking at research?
    My experience with pateints does not always add up with your way of thinking.
    If you were having a house built, would you get a builder with experience or someone who researches how to build a house. I know who i would choose!
    My god this is weak arguement isnt it!
    I do apologise

  16. My god this is weak arguement isnt it!
    I do apologise

    It is rather but this is a blog not the Oxford Debating Society so let’s ignore it.

    It is interesting to note, however, that Patrick Holford, the subject of this blog, has not seen clients for a number of years and claims to dedicate himself to reading hundreds and thousands of papers (to dubious outcomes on occasion, judging by the above errors). Do you think that he should stop proselytising and writing books?

    Or, do you genuinely believe that Patrick Holford is a polymath whose expertise ranges from clinical nutrition and clinical psychology to the dangers of WiFi, correct dental hygiene, how to prevent cancer and how to prevent conception, to name but a few of his areas of self-professed excellence?

  17. superburgermuncher

    I wasnt talking about holford. You havent answerred my question!

  18. superburgermuncher

    Me thinks someone has anger issues

  19. superburger


    using the builder analogy – would you trust a builder with loads of sales, but who apparently doesn’t know the difference between a nail and a screw?

  20. superburger- damn, now I have to get the coffee out of my keyboard.

    superburgermuncher- if, for example, a builder claimed that dowsing was a good way to determine where pipes and wires are sited prior to drilling, then I wouldn’t use them – regardless of their experience.

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