Consumer Health Digest #04-05

Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
February 3, 2004

Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., and cosponsored by NCAHF and Quackwatch. It summarizes scientific reports; legislative developments; enforcement actions; news reports; Web site evaluations; recommended and nonrecommended books; and other information relevant to consumer protection and consumer decision-making.

Homeopathy flunks a "water memory" test. ABC's 20/20 has broadcast the result of a scientific test of the claim that ultra-dilute homeopathic solutions that contain no active ingredient can produce measurable biologic effects. The test involved exposing basophils (a type of white blood cell) to liquids prepared by repeatedly diluting an anti-IgE solution so that no molecules of the original substance remain. (In significant concentration, anti-IgE causes basophils to degranulate and release histamine, but water alone does not.) The tests were carried out by scientists at Guy's Hospital in London who tested 400 samples to see whether basophils would be affected more by the homeopathic preparation than by water. The test was accepted as appropriate by Dana Ullman, a leading proponent who said that serial dilution and shaking impregnates the water with a "memory" of the original substance. James Randi, who runs a foundation devoted to examining supernatural claims, offered to pay $1 million if that happened and predicted that if no effect were found, some proponents would find fault with the study. No effect was found. Three proponents who observed the proceedings voiced no criticism and approved each step while they monitored the experiment, but after the results were announced, Ullman claimed that the study had not been designed or conducted properly. In 1988, the British journal Nature published a report in which French scientist Jacques Benveniste claimed that ultra-dilute histamine had degranulated basophils. To gain publication, Benveniste agreed to repeat the test in the presence of independent observers. The observers included the journal editor and Randi, who set up safeguards to ensure that the study was performed double-blind so that the experimenters couldn't tell which samples contained the homeopathic product. Under these conditions, Benveniste's claims could not be validated.

Web site explains "trans fat" labeling. The FDA has posted information for consumers about the new requirements that the amount of trans fat be noted on the "Nutrition Facts" panels of food product labels. Trans fatty acids are primarily the result of hydrogenation, a process by which hydrogen atoms are added to unsaturated sites on carbon chains, thereby reducing the number of double bonds. In partial hydrogenation, some double bonds remain but may be moved in their positions on the carbon chain and changed from a cis to trans configuration. Hydrogenation increases the melting point, shelf life and flavor stability of unsaturated fatty acids. Through hydrogenation, oils (fats in liquid form), such as soybean, safflower, and cottonseed oil, which are rich in unsaturated fatty acids, are converted to semi-solids and solids that are useful in margarines and vegetable shortenings. Like saturated fats, trans fats can raise levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and increase the risk of heart disease. They are commonly found in processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils such as vegetable shortenings, some margarines (especially margarines that are harder), crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, and baked goods. The new labels are required by January 1, 2006, but most manufacturers will deploy them sooner.

Evening primrose oil ineffective against eczema. A well-designed study of 140 eczema patients who took either a high dose of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) or a placebo for 12 weeks has showed no difference in treatment outcome between the two groups. [Takwale A and others. Efficacy and tolerability of borage oil in adults and children with atopic eczema: randomised, double blind, placebo controlled, parallel group trial. British Medical Journal 327:1385-1388, 2003] In 2001, products for the symptomatic relief of atopic eczema and breast pain were licensed by the British Medicines Control Agency (MCA), which oversees drugs in the United Kingdom. However, in 2002, after additional review, the MCA withdrew its authorization. The study report was accompanied by an editorial which said it was "time to say goodnight" to GLA products for eczema. The writer wondered why such products had been licensed in the first place and charged that negative research findings had been suppressed. Dr. Stephen Barrett responded by posting a detailed history of unethical and illegal promotional activities by GLA marketers during the 1980s.

California legislator promoting feng shui. Assistant Speaker pro Tempore Leland Yee, Ph.D (D-San Francisco) has introduced an Assembly Concurrent Resolution (ACR 144) that urges the California Building Standards Commission to adopt building standards that promote feng shui principles and publish these standards in the California Building Standards Code. Feng shui, said to be a modern version of geomancy, is based on the notion that "energy" can flow more freely to help people by arranging the structures and objects in one's environment. According to Yee:

Yee is also also a child psychologist and chairs the Assembly's Mental Health Subcommittee and the Select Committee on Children's Physical and Mental Well Being in Diverse California Communities.
[Assemblymember Yee introduces resolution urging state to consider feng shui building. Yee news release, Jan 27, 2004] Critics of the resolution have stated that even though it would be nonbinding, consideration by the legislature would waste valuable time. Builders have expressed concerns that modifying the building code would drive up construction costs.

Fake document marketers settle FTC charges. Three companies and three individuals marketing fake international driver's permits (IDPs), college and university diplomas, academic transcripts, and related materials have settled charges that they engaged in deceptive behavior. The settlement prohibits Mountain View Systems, Ltd., Wheelie International, Ltd., S.C. Hyacinth S.R.L, Jason Abraham, Caroline Shallon, and Charles Fogel from selling IDPs, diplomas, and transcripts, and requires them to pay $57,000 in disgorgement. Mountain View Systems and Wheelie International are headquartered in Israel; Hyacinth is a Romanian company. The FTC's complaint was brought as part of "Operation License for Trouble," a nationwide law enforcement sweep charging six marketers of IDPs with scamming consumers out of hundreds of dollars each. The marketing was done via spam e-mail and Web sites. [Court order puts brakes on international license marketers: Defendants barred from selling fake licenses and diplomas. FTC news release, Nov 25, 2003]

Mad cow safeguards announced for supplement products. The FDA plans to implement new public health measures to protect Americans from exposure to the agent thought to cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as mad cow disease). HHS intends to ban from human food (including dietary supplements) and cosmetics a wide range of bovine-derived material so that the same safeguards that protect Americans from exposure through meat products regulated by USDA also apply to food products that FDA regulates. The first interim final rule will ban materials from cattle that cannot walk, cattle that die on the farm, and Specified Risk Materials (SRMs) that are known to harbor the highest concentrations of the infectious agent for BSE, such as the brain, skull, eyes, and spinal cord of cattle 30 months or older and a portion of the small intestine and tonsils from all cattle, regardless of their age or health. [Expanded "mad cow" safeguards announced to strengthen existing firewalls against BSE transmission. HHS news release, Jan 26, 2004] Several supplement companies that market "glandular" products (primarily to chiropractors) may be affected by the ban. ("Glandular therapy" is based on the false premise that consuming raw tissue from animal organs can strengthen the corresponding human organs.) The FDA invited public comments in November 2002.)

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This page was posted on February 3, 2004.