Donald Trump, bad science, and the vitamin company that went bust
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This story was originally published on Nov. 4, 2015

Donald Trump was ready to make some money on vitamins.

On a Friday night in November 2009, Trump stood before a crowd of thousands at the Hyatt Regency in Miami to launch a new enterprise, The Trump Network. Behind him was a gigantic image of his family crest and an enormous photograph of himself.

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“We’re gonna come out with new and different products,” Trump told the crowd. “They’re gonna be wonderful products.”

For about two years, a STAT investigation has found, The Trump Network sold customized vitamins and scientific testing kits, claiming they would yield health benefits. But according to many outside experts, the network was selling bad science.

Among other claims, The Trump Network asserted that it could use a urine test to recommend customized nutritional supplements, its signature products. It also offered products that purportedly tested for allergies and bone health. But scientists said such claims were never backed up by modern medicine.

“They make an outrageous statement, which is that this testing and supplement regimen, this process, are a necessity for anyone who wants to stay healthy,” said Dr. Pieter Cohen, a general internist at Cambridge Health Alliance and an expert on dietary supplement safety who reviewed some of The Trump Network’s marketing materials at the request of STAT. “That’s quite insane.”

Consumers had been taking nutritional supplements based on results of similar tests well before Trump came along. The Trump Network itself was not completely new, either. An existing company, Ideal Health, had been selling the products for years but created the network and licensed Trump’s name to spur growth.

The story of The Trump Network — which was sold in 2012 — is a largely overlooked chapter in the life of the real estate developer turned presidential candidate. An extensive review by STAT — based on interviews with former members of The Trump Network, scientists, and others — shows how the real estate mogul associated himself with a business that has come under scientific scrutiny.

Other Republican presidential candidates have found themselves in similar positions and have come under greater criticism than Trump.

Dr. Ben Carson, another GOP presidential candidate and a former neurosurgeon, has come under fire for giving a series of paid speeches to Mannatech, a Texas-based nutritional supplement company whose claims of medical effectiveness have drawn scrutiny. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, starred in infomercials promoting a “diabetes solution kit,” for which some endocrinologists say there is no scientific support.

In the case of The Trump Network, Trump had no role in the development or manufacturing of the products. But he put his personal brand behind them — speaking at conferences in Miami and Las Vegas, allowing his name and family crest to be used in promotional materials, and appearing in at least one online video to promote the business.

In a “personal letter” posted on the company’s website, Trump said that the company was working with “some of the best nutritionists, scientists, and technologists.”

Alan Garten, executive vice president and general counsel for The Trump Organization, said Trump was endorsing the idea behind the business.

The firm was a network marketing company, or multilevel marketing company, that sold products through a team of marketers who were financially incentivized to make sales and to recruit others into the network.

Trump’s role, Garten said, did not amount to an endorsement of the products.

“His name is not on the products,” he said. “His name is on the Trump Network itself, which is the structure around which the products were sold.”

One of Ideal Health’s founders, Scott Stanwood, said in a brief phone interview that he could not answer questions due to “confidentialities.” He declined to respond to further requests for comment. The other two founders could not be reached for comment.

Contents of a home test for urine, blood, and saliva for the purpose of recommending customized nutritional supplements, included in an Ideal Health business starter kit.

Alissa Ambrose/STAT

Contents of a home test for urine, blood, and saliva for the purpose of recommending customized nutritional supplements, included in an Ideal Health business starter kit.

A urine test and a biohazard bag

The Trump Network sold many health and wellness products, and its main one was a customized nutritional supplement whose composition was determined by a urine test, called the PrivaTest.

A former marketer provided STAT with a kit for Ideal Health’s PrivaTest. It contained a urine collection cup, five test tubes, a cold pack, a biohazard bag, a prepaid FedEx mailing label, and detailed instructions. Customers collected their urine and shipped it to a lab for analysis. That lab analyzed the urine with three tests and produced a report, which was sent to The Trump Network.

The Trump Network bundled the report with a package of pills and shipped it all back to the customer. The pills were marketed as “Custom Essentials,” formulations based on the results of the test and manufactured by another lab. In all, there were 48 formulations.

According to an archived version of The Trump Network’s website that can still be found online, the PrivaTest, along with a month’s worth of the Custom Essentials, cost $139.95. Retesting was available for $99.95, plus shipping and handling. The company recommended retesting every nine to 12 months.

Other products purportedly tested for food allergies, stress, and digestive health. One claimed to measure “the balance between your ‘good’ estrogen and your ‘bad’ estrogen.”

To support the necessity of supplements, The Trump Network’s website cited a 2002 article from the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article, it said, “stated that every adult needs to supplement their nutrition to remain healthy.”

But the article also specifically cautioned against the types of products that The Trump Network sold.

“The Internet and health food stores are filled with promotions for these special-purpose multivitamins, which are often costly,” the article said. “The only evidence-based arguments for taking more than a common multivitamin once a day pertain to the elderly and women who might become pregnant.”

The JAMA article warned against tests that claimed they can help consumers determine which vitamins they should take.

Promotional materials from The Trump Network.

Alissa Ambrose/STAT

Promotional materials from The Trump Network.

Secret science

Ideal Health and The Trump Network had scientific advisory boards of about a dozen people — some worked at the lab conducting the tests, while others had various levels of medical or scientific training even if they didn’t work there. These included nurses, nutritionists, and doctors, some of whom were also marketers with Ideal Health or The Trump Network.

But several board members had limited information about the products and could only make suggestions.

“The scientific advisory board had no teeth,” Ruth Clark, a registered dietician and former member, said in an interview.

While the board members who worked for the testing lab knew how results determined the recommended products, that information was not shared with the rest of the board, former members said.

“We understood in general how it worked,” said Jessie Keener, a former marketer and member of Ideal Health’s scientific advisory board. However, the exact algorithm matching the test results to the Custom Essentials was proprietary, not public. “It wasn’t our business because it wasn’t supposed to be our business,” she said.

Keener called the PrivaTest “cutting-edge” and said she was “blown away” by the network’s products.

Board members did have access to reports that talked about the tests, but these were not published in scientific journals. Clark said that the board was often informed of decisions after they were made, instead of taking part in the decision-making process.

Nevertheless, she and Keener said they were not concerned about the scientific integrity of the company.

Members of the scientific advisory board were not paid for their work. But, under The Trump Network, they received a lapel pin with the Trump family crest and the letters “SAB” — short for scientific advisory board — emblazoned at the top. Members received similar pins under Ideal Health.

It was protocol for board members to wear the pins at Ideal Health events, said Keener, a nutritionist and doctor of naturopathy.

Keener said that when she wore the pin at events, people would come up to her seeking medical advice. They would tell her that they or a family member had certain symptoms, and ask what product they should take. Keener said she couldn’t answer that question.

“You’re trained you cannot actually answer that question directly because we don’t treat symptoms,” Keener said. She said the tests the company sold were backed by science but were not medical tests. “There is no medical anything here,” she said.

Indeed, Ideal Health’s catalogue, a copy of which was obtained by STAT, contains the standard disclaimer: “The Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated these statements. The nutritional supplements and tests in this catalogue are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any diseases.”

The Trump Network’s main website included a similar disclaimer.

A 1994 law — the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act — allows products like these to go onto the market without FDA approval as long as they include that disclaimer.

While the FDA may not have evaluated the tests or supplements, independent scientists have — and raised many questions.

Cohen, one of several scientists who reviewed materials from Ideal Health and The Trump Network, said that the tests were marketed too broadly and seemed to be “pathologizing normal human life.”

The website, for example, recommended its “AllerTest” to anyone who had dark circles under their eyes, occasional digestive problems, fluctuating blood sugar, sinus and respiratory problems, or tiredness after eating.

“Does your blood sugar fluctuate?” Cohen said, laughing. “If your blood sugar does not fluctuate, you are extremely ill. You will not be long on this planet.”

What’s more, the AllerTest did not measure food allergies, as the network’s website claimed it would, according to outside analysis of materials from the testing lab and Ideal Health publications.

The test measured information about an antibody known as immunoglobulin G, or IgG, according to company publications. The antibody is normally produced in the body and not indicative of a food allergy, said Dr. Robert Wood, director of pediatric allergy and immunology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

“There’s no disease condition for which the IgG antibodies have any relevance at all,” Wood said.

Nutritional supplements included in an Ideal Health business starter kit.

Alissa Ambrose/STAT

Nutritional supplements included in an Ideal Health business starter kit.

The Trump effect

Regardless of the science, Trump’s name did wonders for Ideal Health in the short term. Former marketers said the company grew significantly in the months following the name change.

Then, the network began experiencing financial difficulties.

“The Trump Network had gotten in trouble financially,” said Bonnie Futrell, a former marketer and “diamond director” — one of the top-tier marketers in the company. “They weren’t being able to pay [the lab]. They weren’t paying vendors. They weren’t paying us.”

Futrell said she was involved in discussions with company higher-ups about how to salvage the organization.

On Dec. 31, 2011, the license agreement expired, said Garten, the general counsel for The Trump Organization. It was not renewed.

About two months later, a network marketing company known as Bioceutica acquired the assets of Ideal Health and The Trump Network, according to Candace Keefe, the chief executive of Bioceutica.

The company still sells the PrivaTest.

Keefe said Bioceutica has “thousands of testimonials from people who have benefited” from the test. The company, she said, has never claimed its products could cure disease and has never discouraged customers from seeking professional medical advice.

“The science behind urine testing,” she said, “is quite extensive, well-documented medically, and used widely for many reasons.”

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