Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

Trump’s short, failed venture into vitamin supplement hucksterism

The Trump Network sold customized vitamins and urine tests, with the claim that they would make the purchaser healthier. The tests, said Dr. Pieter Cohen, seemed to be “pathologizing normal human life.”

Part of Thursday night’s Republican debate focused on Donald Trump’s now-defunct Trump University, a for-profit real estate training program that has led to criminal fraud investigations and multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

No mention was made, however, about another highly questionable business venture — The Trump Network — that Trump was involved in at about the same time. This one sold customized vitamins and urine tests, with the claim that they would make the purchaser healthier.

Article continues after advertisement

But, as reporter Ike Swetlitz points out in an investigative article first published last November on the Boston’s Globe’s STAT website, the entire venture was based on bad science.

Selling an image

Here’s how the venture worked, as summarized in a video that accompanies Swetlitz’s article:

It started with a company called Ideal Health. And as with all of Trump’s ventures, the key to its success was the use of his image. …

In 2009, Ideal Health created a company called the Trump Network that licensed Trump’s brand. That company sold a urine test kit, called PrivaTest. They claimed the test could be used to create customized nutritional supplements. The urine went from the customer to the testing lab. Based on the analysis the Trump Network sent back “Custom Essentials.” These “Essentials” were packets of one of 48 different [supplement formulations], depending on the customer’s profile.

The Trump Network charged $139.95 in 2012 for the kit and a month’s worth of vitamins. They recommended that customers retest every 9 to 12 months, which meant a year’s supply of tests and vitamins could exceed $900.

Donald Trump, the Vitamin Pitchman by STAT

No scientific evidence

But, as Swetlitz details in his article, the whole premise behind the PrivaTest is scientifically bogus, although the company tried to claim otherwise:

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.

“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,” Dr. Pieter Cohen, a general internist at Cambridge Health Alliance and an expert on dietary supplement safety, told Swetlitz after reviewing some of The Trump Network’s marketing materials. “That’s quite insane.”

The Trump Network’s tests, he added, seemed to be “pathologizing normal human life.”

The company’s “AllerTest,” for example, was recommended to people with any of the following symptoms: dark circles under the eyes; occasional digestive problems, such as diarrhea, constipation and heartburn; fluctuating blood sugar; respiratory problems; or tiredness after eating.

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

Financial trouble

After Ideal Health changed its name to The Trump Network, sales of its products exploded, growing 300 percent in its first year, reports Swetlitz. But the company apparently couldn’t manage that growth, and got into financial trouble. In 2011, the license agreement with Trump was not renewed, and shortly afterward, a company called Bioceutica purchased the assets of Ideal Health and The Trump Network.

Bioceutica still sells the PrivaTest.

A Trump spokesman told Swetlitz that the presidential candidate never endorsed the products sold by The Trump Network, just the idea behind the business. Yet, in a personal letter posted on The Trump Network website (archived here), Trump wrote that the company “works with some of the best nutritionists, scientists, and technologists. As a result, our products are leaders in their categories — designed to help improve your health and wellness, putting you on a path to the lifestyle you’ve always wanted.”

Trump isn’t alone

Of course, Trump isn’t alone in preying on people’s health fears by persuading them to buy unnecessary and, in some cases, even risky vitamins and other nutritional supplements. Indeed, two other Republican presidential hopefuls, Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee, have also been involved in promoting similarly worthless products.

As I’ve written here many times before, the multibillion-dollar nutritional supplement industry is essentially protected from any meaningful government regulation due to its friends in high political places.

Trump, like so many other vitamin hucksters before — and after — him, just took advantage of that situation.

FMI: You can read Swetlitz’s article on the STAT website.