Which? — nutritional therapists giving "dangerous advice"

The consumer group Which? has published a report accusing nutritional therapists of providing advice that “could seriously harm patients health”.

But the report’s findings, and its methodologies, have been sharply criticised by the leading professional body for nutritional therapists.

Which? sent undercover investigators posing as patients with a range of health problems to 15 consultations with nutritional therapists charging £50 to £80 per visit. Using criteria set by its expert panel — dietitian Catherine Collins, professor of pharmacology David Colquhoun and Dr Margaret McCartney, a GP — six of the visits were rated  as ‘dangerous fails’, a further eight were rated as ‘fails’, and only one was deemed a ‘borderline pass’.

One researcher, posing as a breast cancer sufferer, was reportedly told by her therapist to delay radiotherapy treatment recommended by her oncologist saying they could rid the body of cancer through diet. The therapist advised her to follow a no-sugar diet for three to six months saying “cancer feeds off sugar. By cutting out sugar we have a better chance of the cancer going away”. Which?’s expert panel considered this highly irresponsible and incorrect advice.

Which? says that another of its researchers was told by a therapist that if the course of treatment they prescribed for his severe tiredness started to make him feel unwell, it showed the “treatment was working” and he shouldn’t contact his GP as they “wouldn’t understand what was happening”.

Which? accuses the therapists of relying on non-evidence-based testing to diagnose symptoms. And it says some therapists were recommending “unnecessary supplements” costing up to £70 a month.

Which? says it is particularly concerned that several of the therapists had diagnosed conditions. This, it claims, would them in breach of the code of practice operated by the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT), of which 14 out of the 15 the therapists are members. The consumer group accuses BANT of failing to “police practitioners effectively”.

“We found some shocking examples of irresponsible advice given by nutritional therapists”

Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd, said: 

“We found some shocking examples of irresponsible advice given by nutritional therapists. Our research shows that not only were they a waste of money, but some of their recommendations could seriously harm people’s health.

“This is largely a self-regulated industry where anyone can set up and practice as a nutritional therapist, meaning there is no real protection for consumers. Which? wants the government to take action to stop nutritional therapists putting people’s health at risk.”

However, in a statement, BANT says that the Which? report “contains a number of inaccuracies and inconsistencies” and suggests that both report and the experts enlisted by Which? are “biased”. The association also insists that “it is completely outside the BANT Code of Practice to advise a client to withhold any treatment for cancer for any period of time in order to follow a nutritional approach”.

“We were given copy of the transcripts and, quite frankly, these made bizarre reading due to the incompleteness of the texts.”

BANT’s PR manager, Jayne Nelson, told Natural Products that “while the Association has guidelines, not all our members are signed up to them, and we can’t force them to do so.” Nelson said she was surprised to hear that Which? had thought it appropriate to use “secret recordings and fictitious conditions”. She said that Which? had refused to name the practitioners, who might have challenged Which?’s accounts of the consultations, and refused BANT’s requests to be able to listen to the full recordings. “We were given copy of the transcripts and, quite frankly, these made bizarre reading due to the incompleteness of the texts.”

The Alliance for Natural Health (ANH) has acknowledged that “undeniably, some of the advice given by the nutritional therapists targeted by the Which? investigation gives serious cause for concern”, in particular ‘red flag’ symptoms which a trained professional ought to recognise as indicating the possibility of a serious underlying medical condition. It also says that professional codes of practice need to be clear and properly policed, with practitioners who flout their professional body’s code facing “severe sanction”. However, the campaign group accuses Which? of bias in the way it selected its expert panel and of being ” laughably transparent in its desire to hang nutritional therapists out to dry”.

Which? says it is taking its findings to the government and demanding “proper regulation” in the sector.