Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health


Linus Pauling: Genius to Quack?

Ava Helen Miller and Linus Pauling, Oregon Agr...

Ava Helen Miller and Linus Pauling, Oregon Agricultural College Graduation Day, Corvallis, OR (1922) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Sally J. Feltner, PhD, RDN

If you were reading the medical news back in the late 1970’s, you may have seen this headline : Linus Pauling – Nobel Prize Chemistry 1954, Nobel Prize Peace 1963, Nobel Prize Vitamin C 19??.  If ever there was a puzzling story about a man and his accomplishments in the nutrition field, the history of Linus Pauling takes the cake. Here we have a man who had won two unshared Nobel prizes, one for chemistry in 1954 and the other for peace in 1963. Yet, in his later years he was maligned by his peers and branded as a quack for claiming he could cure the common cold and cancer that neither was ever strongly supported by research. Oh, by the way – The third Nobel Prize never happened.


Linus Pauling was born in 1901 in Portland, Oregon. His father owned a successful drug store and Linus was exposed at an early age to the “magic” of chemistry in the backroom of the store. By fourteen he had already set up some semblance of a chemistry laboratory in his basement. He enrolled at Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University and sought a degree in chemical engineering. While teaching undergraduate courses, he met and later married Ava Helen Miller, one of his students. He went on to graduate in 1922 and then continued as a graduate student in the then fledgling California Institute of Technology, or Caltech where he earned his Ph.D. in 1925. After some time in Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship, he returned to Caltech in 1927 as a faculty member and by the age of 38, he was a full professor and head of the chemistry division. He was the youngest member ever elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry primarily for his 1939 work, The Nature of the Chemical Bond that quickly became the standard work in the field. He later became very outspoken on world peace and politics and voiced his negative views on nuclear testing and the Viet Nam War. Although he eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 for his views; he was criticized by the press and was forced to resign his position at Caltech after 40 years of service.


His interests expanded when in 1965 he inadvertently came upon a book at a psychiatrist friend’s house entitled Niacin Therapy in Psychiatry that discussed vitamins as a treatment for mental illness. The author, Abram Hoffer summarized years of research of Humphrey Osmond that showed that very high doses of B vitamins, in this case, niacin could have a beneficial effect on schizophrenics. The doses were extremely high and more than a thousand fold higher than the recommended daily allowance. Hoffer termed this treatment as “megavitamin therapy.

“Megavitamin therapy had considerable respectable backing at the time. Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, wrote about a female whose schizophrenia caused by a pellagra, a niacin deficiency, had been cured by massive doses of niacin. Albert Schweitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, wrote a testimonial for Dr. Max Gerson, who claimed he could cure cancer with twelve glasses of orange, “green”, carrot and liver juice a day along with injections of vitamin B12 and coffee enemas.

Pauling later met Irwin Stone, an American biochemist, who told him about his work in 1935 with vitamin C as a preservative and had some papers on the possibility of its use as a treatment for heart disease, some viral diseases, and cancer due to its antioxidant properties. Stone and his wife began taking doses of about 3 grams of the vitamin a day, way over the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) of 45 milligrams that was enough to prevent scurvy. Stone said he felt better, but vitamin C is notorious for its placebo effects. Pauling wrote and submitted papers on this thesis but all were rejected. Pauling decided to also begin taking 3 grams of the vitamin a day. He reported that he had greater energy and no more colds and Pauling became a believer in the power of vitamin C.

In 1970, he wrote Vitamin C and the Common Cold that instantly became a bestseller and demand for the vitamin could not be met by drugstores around the country. In 1976, he expanded his views by writing another book, Vitamin C, and the Common Cold and Flu. His recommendations were to take at least 1000 mg of vitamin C daily to prevent colds. and that higher doses may be needed by some people to get the same effect. Some physicians and organizations began to label him a “quack” after study after study, even well designed, failed to support these claims.

Pauling increased his intake of vitamin C to 12,000 mg daily and increased that amount if he noticed the symptoms of a cold appearing. The current RDA for vitamin C is 75 mg. for people over 19 years of age.

But Pauling didn’t stop with just the common cold.  He claimed that vitamin C also cured cancer. In 1976, Pauling and a Scottish physician, Dr. Ewan Cameron reported that of one hundred “terminal” cancer patients treated with 10,000 mg of vitamin C daily survived three to four times longer than similar patients who did not receive the supplement. When trying to publish these findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was rejected. Instead, Pauling turned to the journal Oncology. This time peer-review turned up some design flaws, which raised some serious doubts about the claims. He and Cameron wrote the book called Cancer and Vitamin C in 1993.  Despite bad reviews due to the possibility that it “ may raise hopes which are unsupported by proper scientific evidence,” Pauling boosted sales by buying sixteen thousand copies that he sent to physicians and members of Congress.

To further test this observation, the Mayo Clinic conducted three double-blind studies involving a total of 367 patients with advanced cancer. The studies, reported in 1979, 1983, and 1985 found that patients given 10,000 mg of vitamin C daily did no better than those given a placebo. Two of the studies were published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. An angry Pauling criticized the results of each of the studies and said that each had major design flaws.

In 1986, after repeated rejections by the scientific community, Pauling went to the people and wrote How to Live Longer and Feel Better. On the cover is his picture with his trademark appearance: a black beret over a shock of white hair, which displayed his vibrant, good health and vitality in his eighties. His advice was pretty standard – eating in moderation including eggs and meat, fruits and vegetables and even having a drink or two daily. Cutting down on sugar was recommended and of course taking large doses of vitamins. For example, he was now taking 6 – 18 grams of vitamin C per day. Now he included mega doses of vitamin E, vitamin A and “super B’ tablets as well as a multi-mineral supplement.


The Linus Pauling Institute that bears his name exists to this day and has evolved into a respectable organization. However, his irrational advice about supplements continues to lead people astray. There is almost a cult-like group of followers who still try to find ways to promote his theories in spite of the evidence against them. They still think he was right. Maybe, but don’t hold your breath.

He died from prostate cancer and rectal cancer in 1994 and his wife, died from stomach cancer in 1980. “Earlier in 1994, he was honored at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement in Science. He arrived in his wheelchair but insisted in walking in on his own. He wore his signature black beret. When he arrived, the audience gave a standing ovation and cheered loudly. According to one biographer, Thomas Hager, he wrote: “Pauling stopped and waved. Then he gave the crowd one of his trademark ear-to-ear grins.”

Pauling was certainly a genius but fell prey to the hype of mega-dose vitamin therapy. He was probably instrumental in promoting the mega-dose vitamin craze that followed and exists to this day.  Some headlines still tout its possibilities and one wonders if ever, this theory will finally be put to rest, one way or another. So in a sense, Linus Pauling lives on and on.


Yager, Thomas. Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling, 2011, Monroe Press

Levenstein, Harvey. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, 2003, U. of California Press

Barrett, Stephen, M.D. The Dark Side of Linus Pauling’s Legacy,  Quackwatch



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To Detox or Not?

It’s time for New Year’s resolutions again and diet, weight loss and fitness declarations will be made.  Here comes the season for detoxification diets to help us clear out the ravages of holiday eating and parties. But before you race to the health food store, you may want to realize that they may not be necessary after all.

Where did the idea of detoxification come from?

Though the first-ever instance of detoxing hasn’t been pinpointed in history, many historians attribute detoxification diets to Ayurveda. Ayurveda, meaning “The Science of Life,” is the practice of natural medicine that originated in India at around 3500 BC. One of the disciplines in Ayurveda is pancha karma, which includes progressively eliminating certain foods from the diet, taking spiritual walks, and cleaning out the colon and the nasal passage. The goal of pancha karma is to prolong life and prevent disease, and to spur spiritual and emotional growth.

The use of colon hydrotherapy was first recorded in 1500 BC by the Egyptians. It’s also been mentioned in a document titled “The Essene Gospel of Peace” written in the biblical times approximately 3,500 years ago. Here’s an excerpt: “…suffer the end of the stalk of the trailing gourd to enter your hinder parts, that the water may flow through all your bowels. . .Then let the water run out from your body, that it may carry away from within it all the unclean and evil-smelling things.

Some simple and safe “detox” techniques have been suggested by Dr. Andrew Weil who offers some sensible Ayurvedic advice.  These can include: massage therapy, yoga and meditation (based on some good evidence) to relieve stressors and promote a feeling of overall well-being. A goal to increase more healthy lifestyles and make some practical New Year’s Resolutions is a better idea than using unnecessary and expensive “detoxification” diets and sometimes unsafe practices like colonic irrigation.


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New Food Words of 2015

A near-ending game board, tiles and racks of t...

A near-ending game board, tiles and racks of the magnetic Pocket Scrabble (International, Mattel, Inc.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are a Scrabble player, you will certainly want to be aware of these new words that describe food-related items and topics. My personal favorite would be Wine-O ‘Clock.   Enjoy!!


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Mr. Graham Builds a Cracker

English: A s'more (graham cracker, chocolate, ...

English: A s’more (graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow} in the wire basket used to roast it over an open campfire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Sally J. Feltner


Sylvester Graham was born in 1794 in Suffield, Connecticut to a seventy-two year old father. An early biographer described him as a “seemingly dyspeptic child with a somewhat feeble constitution” and at that time, it was recommended that he be exposed to open air as a treatment. After his father’s death, Sylvester lived with an uncle for several years doing farm work. When he was twelve, he was sent to school in New York and at fourteen, he began to learn the trade of papermaking.

Graham was 29 years old when he attended Amherst College. “He soon became known for his radical ideas and long speeches and was referred to as “The Stage Actor”. “ He was described as handsome, clever, and imaginative.” Ill health followed him for most of his life with recurring episodes of “consumption” which was the common name at the time for tuberculosis.

He became associated with William Metcalfe of the Bible Christian Church where he converted to the ministry and to the principles of radical dietary reform and vegetarianism. Graham compared man physiologically with the orangutan and to conclude that like the apes, his natural food was vegetarian. He also recommended against alcohol, tea, coffee, spices, condiments, and meat, especially fatty pork.


Due to his ill health, he was interested in diet so he started to study anatomy and physiology. This led him to develop a series of lectures on the topics and traveled widely with his messages on the East Coast. His diet tenets included old whole grain bread, fruits and vegetables, pure water, and coarsely ground whole grain cereals. He believed in open air, cold baths and sleeping on hard mattresses would encourage health and moral reform. Graham believed that moderation in all things is beneficial and that certain foods and behaviors are detrimental to both physical and spiritual health. Graham believed that eating meat stimulated sexual behavior and aggression. His theories made him a central figure in the health reform movement of the 1800’s. Graham started a healing system called “Orthopathy” with Issac Jennings as they believed that Nature knows better than most physicians of his time. He believed that “ pure water, bland food, temperance and chastity could prevent cholera.

Milling of wheat began to put wheat through bolting cloth and was trying to whiten it, the forerunner of refined flour that Sylvester abhorred. Sylvester came up with the idea that if bran was returned into the wheat, the present diet of that time, rich in fat would be alleviated. In other words, the American diet needed fiber and bulk to help prevent constipation and autointoxication.

He wrote his Treatise on Bread and Bread Making in 1837. “He promoted the use of coarser, whole wheat flour and should be made in the home, not commercially.  Butchers and bakers were threatened by his preaching of these doctrines and often tried to disrupt his lectures. In one instance in Boston in the same year, they forced cancellation of his lecture with threats of violence. However, Graham moved on to another venue where his supporters dispersed the crowd by throwing lime into it. The lecture then proceeded.

Graham did not stop with just lecturing about diet and disease. He offered advice to young men on sex and emphasized chastity. A number of his lectures were published, including The Young Man’s Guide to Chastity and Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life. He became the subject of jokes and editorials – Ralph Waldo Emerson called him the “poet of bran and pumpkins.” In the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity, he wrote: “every farmer knows that if his horse has straw cut with his grain, or hay in abundance, he does well enough. Just so it is with the human species. Man needs the bran in his bread”

Graham was a strict adherent to vegetarianism. He promoted this belief incessantly in his publication, Lectures on the Science of Human Life.

He taught that temperance included both physical and moral reform that reflected his practice of the Natural Hygiene Theory. His other declarations got wilder:

  • Food should never be eaten hot.
  • It should be chewed slowly and energetically.
  • Water should never be taken with meals.
  • Tea could produce delirium tremens.
  • Condiments caused insanity.
  • He thought that excessive lewdness and chicken pie were the cause of cholera.
  • He claimed that vegetarianism could cure tuberculosis

Those who followed Graham’s ideas became known as “Grahamites”. As a result, Graham boarding houses were created that advocated his ideas. Graham’s followers included Susan B. Anthony, Horace Greely, Amelia Bloomer, Amos Bronson Alcott and David Henry Thoreau.


As he neared the age of sixty, he retired from lecturing to Northampton, Massachusetts. He took an ice bath every morning, ate old dark bread (whole wheat, of course); the press turned on him and made fun of him. Even though his health was failing, he and William Metcalfe founded the American Vegetarian Society in 1850. He died in 1851 at the age of fifty-seven. He left behind a wife, an 18-year-old son and a married daughter.

What was the legacy of Sylvester Graham? Was he simply the inventor of the Graham cracker or do some of his teachings remain with us today? Many biographies refer to him as the inventor of the Graham Cracker. Who actually produced the first ‘graham crackers’ that Sylvester promoted — is the subject of dispute, however. Some sources assert Graham himself invented the snack in 1829; others claim the graham cracker did not come into being until 1882, 31 years after Graham’s death. (The latter date appears to be based on the year recipes for graham crackers started appearing in cookbooks.

Sylvester Graham still “lives” in the minds of many. It is becoming common that fiber and whole grains, as he preached are back in the food supply. Visit a supermarket where “WHOLE GRAIN is emblazoned on every package of cereal, pasta and bread product. The consumption of meat, especially red meat is maligned again after decades of its promotion. His writings and lectures began the widespread acceptance of dietary reform beginnings that still influence our food choices today, primarily in the recent interest in “whole” foods and as well as with the renewed interest in the vegetarian and vegan communities.

During the 1830’s, Sylvester Graham is known as a founder of the Natural Hygiene movement.  His ideas of “auto-intoxication” promoted  the dietary practice of detoxification and thus “detox” diets, which will be addressed, in future posts. I wonder what he would think of that great North American culinary treat, “s’mores”? Stay tuned.


Ronald M. Deutsch, The New Nuts Among the Berries, Bull Publishing Company, 1977.

Susan Yager, The Hundred Year Diet, America’s Voracious Appetite for Losing Weight, Rodale, 2010

Libby H. O’Connell, The American Plate: a culinary history in 100 bites, Sourcebooks, Inc. 2014





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Is There Really a Paleo Diet?

Fruits and vegetables, rich in vitamins, potas...

Fruits and vegetables, rich in vitamins, potassium and fiber, represent an important feature of hunter-gatherer diets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A good article from Marion Nestle – respected nutritionist and author on her opinion of the Paleo Diet.  It appears from the Comments that people love their Paleo diet and defend it wholeheartedly.  My opinion – the Paleo benefits more than likely come from the avoidance of refined sugars, fats, and grains and thus processed foods.  It does allow for more animal foods, e.g., meats which for many, adds to its acceptance as a diet that does not foster hunger as much as the more restrictive diets.

We really don’t know what our Paleo ancestors ate.  More than likely, we  can surmise:

  • They hunted and ate leaner meat than our over-fattened factory farm animals.
  • They did not have access to butter, processed meats, cream or bacon.
  • They ate more “real” foods like fruits and vegetables.
  • They did not have a microwave oven.

Please read a previous post HERE entitled Do You Paleo?


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The Melting Pot of Nutrition

Today there are so many opinions as to what is the best diet, what are superfoods, how should we eat, how can I lose weight and keep it off – it makes your head spin.  The following article by Dr. David Katz discusses this dilemma.  And it is problem – who is right or wrong?  It seems that almost everyone that eats food has their own, often strong, opinions about diet and nutrition and due  to the internet the plethora of information and misinformation is available  to us like never before.



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Fear of Food?

The following article is a witty and healthy reminder that we should keep in mind when reading about the latest food scare.  It is no wonder that we have individuals who are predisposed to take healthy eating to extremes – now a new eating disorder called orthorexia.  Let us be reminded that the most healthy cultures like the French and those longest-living populations found in the book, The Blue Zones embrace foods and the art of eating with pleasure and enjoyment.  Maybe we should all relax a little and try to do the same.



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