This is about something I learned nine years ago, and about how different the Web has made the world since then.
In 1996, I was introduced to a product known as Blue-Green Algae. BGA, as I’ll call it, was presented as the nutritional supplement that would fix all the damage caused by our modern, nutrient-poor diet. BGA’s supporters were also its distributors, in an Amway-style multi-level marketing structure. BGA was promoted by word of mouth and in a body of literature published by its manufacturer, Cell-Tech of Klamath Falls, Oregon. The benefits to be had by taking BGA were enthusiastically listed in a Q&A section headed “The secret of perfect cellular balance is proper cellular nourishment.”. A key element in the BGA narrative was the critical role played by minerals and trace elements, the presence or absence of which would make the “difference between vibrant health and chronic disease.” One brochure presented a detailed case:
I was intrigued by all this, and wanted to learn more. In all of the descriptions of how BGA’s properties set it apart from conventional foodstuffs, one solid lead presented itself. In the brochure shown above it was said that a “recent study from the Firman Bear report, based on research conducted at Rutgers University concluded that commercially grown and organically grown vegetables … had significant nutritional differences.” A table was presented in evidence, seen at the lower right above. Here it is at larger scale:
I wanted to know more about this “Firman Bear Report”, but how was I to find it? In 1996, the Web was in its infancy, and Google had yet to transform electronic research. Even so, there were a few search tools available, and I was able to discover that Dr. Edward Firman Bear (1884-1968) had been a highly respected agronomist and soils chemist, and that a chapter of the Soil Science Society of America was named after him. So far so good — but, if Dr. Bear had died in 1968, how likely was it that a “recent study” had been derived from his work? A little more electronic digging turned up a citation:
Bear, Firman E, Stephen J. Toth and Arthur L. Prince. “Variation in Mineral Composition of Vegetables.” Proceedings of the Soil Science Society of America, 13:380-384, 1948.
This was progress. The study might not qualify as “recent” by many folks’ standards, but I had a citation. The next step was to get my hooks on the report. Anyone who has done much academic research is aware that the number of journals in the world is so huge that only a few of the largest university libraries can carry more than a small fraction of them. The Proceedings of the Soil Science Society of America proved to be outside the holdings of any university in Colorado, and with my pitiful Public Patron card, there was little I could do to get the document. With some reluctance, I gave up the quest.
Fast-forward three years. In 1999, I was taking graduate courses at CU. One day, something reminded me of Bear et al., and I realized — hey, with a student’s library card, I can get Inter-Library Loan! By filling out a form and waiting two weeks, I was able to get a copy of the study. It contained a table, parts of which seemed familiar:
The alert reader will have noticed that the five vegetables listed in the BGA brochure, and the mineral contents for each, do indeed appear in the table from Bear et al. — but with very different labels for the rows. The table presented by Bear, Toth and Prince lists the mineral content of vegetables grown in the soils of several states. Because the focus of the study was cation uptake by plants, mineral content was expressed as “milliequivalents per 100 grams dry water” (an odd phrase, but it makes sense in the context of the experimental procedure). First listed are the state-by-state averages for each mineral in each vegetable, then the highest and lowest values obtained in all 204 samples. Thus, snapbeans grown in Georgia were reported to have an average of 38.3 meq/100g of magnesium. The highest and lowest values of magnesium in any snapbean sample were 60.0 and 14.8 meq/100g, respectively, and so on.
When we look at the table presented in the BGA promotional brochure, we see the same numbers for the same vegetables — but now, each of the “Highest” rows has been relabeled “Organic” and each of the “Lowest” rows has been relabeled “Conventional.”
Now, six years later, I remember clearly how surprised I was by this. I thought “Why did they even bother to take a table from an actual paper that anyone could look up, and relabel the rows? Why didn’t they just make up the numbers from whole cloth?”
Here’s my guess: Someone, for reasons now forgotten, once transcribed the table and relabeled the rows. The table was then passed from hand to hand many times after being separated from its parent document. The writers of the BGA brochure had probably never seen the original paper, and most likely believed that the table they presented was valid. Hardly anyone was likely to go to the trouble I had just to get a copy of the Bear, Toth and Prince study. There is no need to assume that the writers of the brochure were working a conscious deception; they could take anything they’d been given, accept it on faith and print it without any reasonable likelihood of a casual reader discovering that it was false.
But my library card was not the only thing that had changed. Between 1996 and 1999, the Web grew a lot. Suddenly it was possible to do a Google search for “blue green algae” and discover a number of interesting things about the product, the company and its founders — such as the fact that Cell-Tech is descended from another company, and was apparently founded in order to shed the legal baggage of its predecessor. In 1986, a court found that Blue Green Manna products had been mislabeled and misleadingly advertised, and issued a permanent injunction against Victor Kollman and K. C. Laboratories forbidding further sales of Blue Green Manna. Fortunately for the algae business, Victor’s brother Daryl had started Cell-Tech International a few years before, and has continued to do business under that name ever since. By 1999, it was also possible to find references to BGA at sites ranging from Health Canada to MLM Watch. With a dial-up connection and a half-hour’s research, the consumer interested in BGA could easily discover that the elaborate framework of claims made for the supplement had little or no basis in fact.
Now, fast-forward to the present. Want to know about the “Firman Bear report”? Just Google for “firman bear” — the top result is for the Rutgers University library system, where another link takes you to a page dedicated to information about the report, including the following:
This study is often misrepresented as evidence supporting the position that organically grown foods are superior in minerals and trace elements to those grown conventionally. In fact, the study did not compare synthetic fertilizer practice to organic.
Professor Joseph Heckman of the Rutgers Plant Science Department has prepared a packet of materials discussing the study including “disclaimers” about its relevance to organic farming. If you would like to receive the packet, contact: Professor Joseph Heckman
Dept. of Plant Science
Rutgers University, Foran Hall
59 Dudley Road
New Brunswick, NJ 08901
heckman (SHIFT – 2) aesop.rutgers.edu
732-932-9711 Ext. 119
Another link takes you to the study itself. That’s right — the whole blessed thing is now on line! I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about this, considering the effort I’d expended just a few years ago to get a copy — but there is no doubt that this is a good thing all around.
So — in our enlightened present times, there is no reason for the health-conscious consumer to remain in the dark about BGA, right?
If we go back to our Google search for “firman bear” and examine the hits that come after Rutgers, we find that most give an essentially correct account of the study’s conclusions. But not all. One site invokes Bear et al. to support its assertion that “the depletion of dozens of minerals from the soil continues to wreak havoc with our metabolic enzyme systems–gifting us with the chronic diseases of our time.” Another cites Bear, then concludes that “It is quite clear that the vitamin and mineral content in our food supply is continuing to diminish.” Even today, we can find the mislabeled table continuing to be offered as evidence that organically grown crops contain higher concentrations of minerals — for example, here and here. Dr. Bear deserves to be remembered for his contributions to soil science, but his immortality has taken the form of being the most misquoted figure in the history of the discipline.
How about BGA, then? Surely, in our information-rich age, any over-exuberant claims for algae’s benefits cannot survive the withering heat of scrutiny, can they? One can only wish. Cell Tech International continues to sell a line of products containing “nutrients that promote physical well-being” and providing such benefits as “nutritional assurance for the mind” and “high-quality nutrition for the perfect balance of physical energy and mental performance.” At another location, BGA is still touted as a treatment for ADHD and an immune system booster. Until recently, one site sold BGA as the “Natural Wonder Food” Chlorella, claiming that it would
- Build your immune system
- Detoxify the heavy metals and other pesticides in your body
- Improve your digestive system, including decreasing constipation
- Focus more clearly and for greater duration
- Improve your energy level
- Balance your body’s pH
- Normalize your blood sugar and blood pressure
- Eliminate bad breath
- Fight cancer
In February, the FDA pointed out that it is illegal to make such claims unless and until their truth has been demonstrated. Faced with the choice between backing up those claims and toning them down to avoid legal action, the distributor deleted every claim specifically objected to by the FDA, and continues relentlessly to plug Chlorella as a miracle product.
I began this post promising a history of what I’d found out about BGA some years ago, and a discussion of how the Web has changed the world since that time. I’m done with the BGA story. As to the Web, I can only point to this experience as an example of what others have observed (and done it much better) before me:
Thanks to the Web, more people can acquire more information, more quickly, than ever before.
Thanks to the Web, more people can acquire more misinformation, more quickly, than ever before.
 The figure of 15.5 for the lowest calcium content seems to be in error, since the average for Georgia is given as 14.5. This is probably a typo.
 Here, as elsewhere, I link to the Wayback Machine’s archive from the period in question — in this case, 1999. The page has been updated since then.
 The company’s first web page, ca 1996, dates its founding to 1980. It makes no mention of Victor or Blue Green Manna.
 Remember, before “Google” was a verb, when the user had a choice of six search engines, any one of which returned a random grab-bag of useless results? I don’t miss those days, either.
 At the time of writing, Rutgers’ server appears to be down. All praise be to the Wayback Machine!
 You can cheer quietly, you know.