Standard Process is a company that has been selling dietary supplements since 1929. It was founded by a dentist, Royal Lee, who developed a number of unconventional theories about the role of nutrition in health and disease. In essence, Dr. Lee and his successors take rational, scientific principles and extend them well beyond reason and evidence to promote claims that the particular plant and animal extracts they provide have near magical medicinal qualities. This is the very paragon of pseudoscience, the presentation of unsupported, often irrational hypotheses, mingled with scientific terminology and a sprinkling of tangentially related actual scientific facts to create a set of faith beliefs that appear to be scientific but do not actually conform to the philosophy, methods, or data of legitimate science.
It is quite reasonable and demonstrably true, for example, that nutritional deficiencies can cause disease, and that supplementation with the appropriate nutrients can prevent and treat such diseases. This does not, however, support the generalization that all disease is associated with nutritional deficiencies, or that all disease can be ameliorated with proper nutritional supplementation. Food and nutrients of appropriate kind and quantity are unquestionably necessary for health and even life, but that has very little to do with whether or not the specific theories about the benefits of particular foods and nutrients sold by Standard Process are true.
Of course, Standard Process products are not simple vitamin and mineral supplements. They contain complex mélanges of plant and animal ingredients. The marketing materials talk a lot about the value of “whole foods.” The claim is frequently made that plant and animal tissues contain combinations of chemicals (never called by that dirty word, of course) that provide greater health prevention and treatment benefits in combination that individual nutrients can alone. And it is taken as a given that “processing” of any kind, including cooking, ruins the nutritional and health value of foods. The key to healthful supplements are that they contain whole, unprocessed, natural ingredients, preferably organically produced.
All of these are fairly standard arguments seen in the marketing materials for alternative approaches to nutrition. The evidence does not generally support such claims. Organic food appears to be no healthier than conventionally produced foods, though there may still be some environmental advantages to organic production methods. And while cooking and other kinds of processing do alter the nutrient content of foods, this is a pretty well-understood phenomenon. Some nutrients become more available, and those that are diminished by cooking can be effectively replaced. So the evidence does not support claimed health benefits for raw foods in humans or pets. “Natural,” of course is a meaningless marketing term. Synergy can exist between compounds in a whole plant, but it requires complex, thorough investigation to document that it actually does occur in any particular plant. And finally, the issue of “processing” of foods is a complex mishmash of fact and mythology. In general, “processed food” is used as a synonym for “junk food,” but clearly every time you wash, chop, season, or cook your food, you are “processing” it, and usually improving it. Claims about the nutritional inadequacy or deleterious effects of commercial pet foods are not supported by real evidence.
What is particularly odd about the emphasis in Standard Processes’ marketing materials on natural, unprocessed, whole foods is that their supplements cannot in any reasonable way be described by any of these buzzwords. They are complex mixtures of herbs, plant extracts, vitamins and minerals combined with “Protomorphogen” and “Cytosol” extracts. highly processed substances derived through proprietary processes from animal tissues, These mixtures are then compounded into tablets or powders. So mixtures that would never be found in nature in forms that are the result of extensive technological processing are sold as natural whole foods?
The animal tissue extracts represent another element to Dr. Lee’s unproven, pseudoscientific nutritional theories. It is true that deficiencies in the function of some glands can be remedied by supplementation with relevant substances from the same gland. However, it is usually true that purified isolates or synthetic forms of these glandular products are superior to whole organ supplements, and often the supplement cannot be given orally anyway. And none of this has any relevance to the broader claims that whole gland products or gland extracts prevent or treat disease through the action of numerous, often unidentified substances.
Ultimately, the idea that treating kidney disease by feeding ground up kidneys to the patient, as an example, is not a scientific hypothesis but yet another form of sympathetic magic. This is a descriptive term from anthropology which refers to a form of magical belief found in most cultures, that things which resemble one another in some superficial way can be used to influence each other. Mandrake root must be an aphrodisiac or fertility treatment because the root resembles a human penis; voodoo dolls that look like a particular person can be used to harm them; and diseases that involve a particular organ can be treated by feeding supplements made from that or a related organ.
There does not seem to be any real research evidence to support the claim than glandulars in general, or the “special” gland extracts sold by Standard Process, have any significant health benefits. Those who promote the use of these products support their assertions with clinical experience, case reports and uncontrolled case series, and reference to pre-clinical research showing that some chemicals from some glands have some effects. Much of the supporting research comes from publications devoted exclusively to promoting these products or alternative therapies in general. And, of course, there are plenty of anecdotes and testimonials to miraculous cures brought about by these products, which have their usual lack of probative value. Well-designed and conducted clinical trials published in mainstream peer-reviewed journals do not appear to exist, despite the fact that the company has been producing and marketing supplements for over 70 years.
As is usual with pseudoscience, claims about the products and unsupported theories are mingled with tangentially related facts from legitimate scientific theory and research. One example of the marketing materials for the Standard Process veterinary product line illustrates this technique. The document, published in Standard Process’ own pseudojournal Whole Food Nutrition Journal, begins with a list of known nutrient deficiency diseases. It then proceeds to point out that the transition from “traditional” to “modern” diets is associated with health problems. This has, of course, some truth to it, though it has nothing to do with the claims that will later come about the specific relationship between Standard Process supplements and health, and it ignores the fact that so-called “traditional” diets are themselves associated with nutritional deficiency diseases.
The infamous Pottenger study is mentioned, which is a common warning sign of veterinary nutritional pseudoscience. This is a poorly designed experiment from the 1940s that involved feeding milk and meat, either cooked or raw, to cats. The cats fed the cooked meat developed nutritional and developmental diseases, which is often cited as evidence that raw foods are healthier than cooked foods. Unfortunately, the complete lack of experimental controls or proper evaluation of the subject, and the simple fact that both diets were grossly deficient and utterly unlike the commercial pet foods the study is usually used to criticize, make the results meaningless. Pseudoscience at its best, or worst.
The pattern continues throughout the document, and is characteristic of the rest of Standard Process advertising. A mixture of hypotheses and outright fantasy with vaguely related scientific information to create the false impression that the whole is sound. What the company is pretty careful not to do is make direct claims that its products prevent or treat actual diseases. Thanks to the ridiculously lax regulation of dietary supplements, it is possible to suggest, imply, and in a multiplicity of clever ways mislead the consumer, and even veterinarians, into believing the products have proven value in disease treatment or prevention. However, straight out claims that the products are medicinal are not allowed. The company and its founder have been sanctioned numerous times in the past by the Food and Drug Administration for illegal claims about their products. The current leadership is now more careful. However, believers in these supplements, primarily chiropractors and naturopaths as well as “holistic” veterinarians, devise and teach each other strategies for deciding which supplements to use when.
The theories about the relationship between food, nutrients and health invented by Dr. Lee and still promoted by Standard Process are unscientific and not supported by scientific evidence.
The marketing claims that the products are beneficial because they are unprocessed, natural, whole foods are both meaningless and inconsistent with the real nature of the products, which are highly processed, artificial mixtures of compounds.
The promotional materials used to advertise these products to veterinarians and consumers are highly misleading pseudoscience, mixing unproven and unscientific ideas with bits of real science that do not actual have anything to do with the validity of the claims made about the company’s theories or products.
There is no evidence beyond individual opinion, anecdotes, and poorly designed case series to indicate that Standard Process products have any value in treating or preventing disease. More than 70 years after the company began manufacturing and selling supplements, there are still no good quality clinical trials demonstrating that any of their products are effective for the prevention or treatment of any medical condition.
Ultimately, the choice to use these products is a gamble, trusting that notoriously unreliable forms of evidence such as anecdotes can accurately guide us in the absence of any real scientific evidence.