Saturday November 25, 2006
It would be almost too easy to poke fun at Dr Gillian McKeith PhD, just because she’s been busted by the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority this week for selling sordid medicinal products without a license. But as my girlfriend could happily tell you, I’m not a complicated man. So, Ms McKeith’s “Wild Pink” and “Horny Goat Weed” sex supplements are sold for “maintaining erections, orgasmic pleasure, ejaculation… lubrication, satisfaction, and arousal”, and sexual pleasure is, historically, the natural domain of quackery: but without the appropriate license, demonstrating safety, quality, and efficacy, her products were illegal.
Interestingly, although the contemporary nutritionism movement likes to present itself as a thoroughly modern and evidence based enterprise, the food guru industry, with its outlandish promises, moralising, and sexual obsessions, goes back at least 170 years. Like our modern food gurus, the historical figures of nutritionism were mostly enthusiastic lay people; and just like our modern food gurus, they all claimed to understand nutritional science, nature, evidence, and medicine, better than the scientists of their time. The advice and the products may have shifted with the prevailing religious and moral notions of the time, but they have always played to the market, be it puritan or liberal, new age or christian.
Graham crackers are a digestive biscuit, not entirely unhealthy, invented by Sylvester Graham, the first great advocate of vegetarianism and nutritionism as we would know it, and proprietor of the world’s first health food shop. Like his descendants today, Graham mixed up sensible notions – like cutting down on cigarettes and alcohol – with some other rather more esoteric ideas which he concocted for himself, warning that ketchup and mustard, for example, can cause “insanity”.
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.
Soon these food marketing techniques were picked up by more overtly puritanical religious zealots like John Harvey Kellogg (he of the cornflake). Kellogg was a natural healer, masturbation campaigner, and health food advocate, promoting his granola bars as the route to abstinence, temperance, and solid morals. He ran a sanitarium for private clients, using “holistic” techniques, including McKeith’s favourite, colonic irrigation.
I particularly enjoy the bit in Kellogg’s “Treatment for Self-Abuse and its Effects”, where he recommends circumcision: “The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment. In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement.” Kellogg also advocated exposing the tissue on the glans, so that it smarted nastily with friction during self-pollution. You do have to wonder about the motives of anyone who thinks the problem through in that much detail.
By the early 20th century a man called Bernard MacFadden had updated the nutritionism model for contemporary moral values, and so became the most commercially successful drugless therapist of the era. The pseudoscience and the posturing were the same, but he used liberal sexuality to his advantage, selling his granola bars as a food that would promote a muscular, thrusting, lustful lifestyle, in that decadent rush that flooded the population between the wars.
And interestingly, MacFadden’s food product range was complemented by a more unusual invention of his own. The “Peniscope” was a popular suction device designed to enlarge the male organ which is still used by many today, in a modestly updated form. Since this may be your only opportunity to learn about the evidence on penis enlargement, it’s worth mentioning that there is, in fact, some evidence that stretching devices can increase penis size. So to judge by the MHRA ruling, rather charmingly, as it happens, MacFadden’s Peniscope may have a better evidence base for its claims than either his own food products, or McKeith’s Horny Goat Love Bar.
· Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org
You can read the press release of the MHRA’s attack on McKeith’s products here, as well as (new on the page) the bizarre tale of McKeith’s attempt at damage limitation.