Call it “Vitamin T.” For several years in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Donald Trump encouraged people to take part in a pseudo-scientific vitamin scheme—all without expressing any concern about how it might potentially endanger people’s health.
Through a multi-level marketing project called The Trump Network, the business mogul encouraged people to take an expensive urine test, which would then be used to personally “tailor” a pricey monthly concoction of vitamins—something a Harvard doctor told The Daily Beast was a straight-up “scam.”
And when The Daily Beast asked a doctor for The Trump Network to defend the products, he wound up deriding the idea of “evidence-based” medicine.
The Trump Network ultimately failed, and its assets were sold off. But it was not just a marketing and business disaster—the actions of the all-but-certain GOP presidential nominee reflect his willingness to license his name to a product without fully vetting it: a casual endorsement of a serious matter, all with the flitting nonchalance that characterizes the many falsehoods he utters.
The project is just another example of Trump’s questionable business practices, from his Trump University (accused by many students of fraud) to his casinos (which went bankrupt so often) to his “tasteless and mealy” signature steaks. And it highlights an essential contradiction in his campaign for the White House. While politician Trump says that he cares about average Joe or Jane, his past shows a shocking indifference.
There was no indication Trump himself ever took the vitamins he promoted, and doctors associated with the project tell The Daily Beast he appeared to endorse the product without ever making any inquiries about its science or what it did to the body.
Trump’s peddling of these products without regard for their safety is emblematic both of his often-incurious approach to business and politics—as well as the dangers of a loosely regulated supplement industry. Based on the The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, vitamins (like the ones sold by Trump) don’t require approval from the Federal Drug Administration.
In this world, unbeknownst to most buyers, pseudoscience is as good as the real thing.
Vitamin companies can claim to improve brain function, clear up skin, and increase energy without a single human study proving that the things they’re selling actually do.
While the FDA urges the $34 billion dollar industry to refrain from “false statements,” and fraudulent labeling, it’s an order that’s hardly policed. The “grey area” that results is rife with distortion, and leaves consumers dangerously ill-informed about what they’re taking. A study from the Drug Testing and Analysis journal in 2015 found synthetic speed hiding in 11 different weight-loss supplements, potentially putting patients with heart conditions in danger.
“If you want a steak or a wine with Trump’s name on it, that’s fine—but if you want to play around with your health and have someone try to sell you something because they think they need to sell you pills, that’s something entirely different,” said Janet Helm, a nutritionist and registered dietitian who writes frequently about diet myths, nutrition trends, and misinformation. “I find it troubling if [Trump didn’t] research… [and] if he didn’t have the right counsel to evaluate the products and the test, that makes me question his judgement.”
One of the major products that the Trump Network sold was PrivaTest, a urine analysis formulated by Ideal Health, a multi-level marketing company focusing on “naturopathic” products. Naturopathy centers on the idea that the body can self-heal through the use of therapeutic substances like herbs and vitamins. Using this urine test, Ideal Health claimed to be able to “tailor” a vitamin regimen to do just that.
In an extensive interview with The Daily Beast, a top doctor from the Trump Network, recalled the now-presidential hopeful’s lack of interest in how the products worked. The doctor asked to remain anonymous to protect himself from potential legal action.
According to him, Trump was fresh off a guest-speaking engagement at a marketing company’s rally when he got wind of Ideal Health. He was apparently anxious to cash in on the rise of network marketing, and had been shopping around for such a company. His attorneys reportedly “loved” Ideal Health, not as much for its product but its opportunity for “extraordinary growth.”
Both the biotech firm that created the test, Metametrix, and the company that manufactured it, Douglas Laboratories, were operating on behalf of tens of thousands of physicians, legally. The doctor said was that enough for Trump and his organization to give the OK.
But Trump did not inquire about the science behind the naturopathic regimen. “That’s not what he does,” the former top doctor said. “He just looks to the people who are involved and what people did with this business… looked at the people who were participating and said ‘this is good.’”
What “clinched” it, the leading doctor said, is the three owners of the company mocking up fake “Trump Vitamin” packaging, which they took the Acela from Boston to New York in order to deliver on Trump’s desk. The “upscale appearance” of the packaging was allegedly enough to seal the deal. “They knew what would push his buttons,” the doctor said.
The doctor still has a box of the Trump Network vitamins at his home. In them, is a “high grade comprehensive multi vitamin,” which contains “mineral antioxidants,” “liver inflammation,” and “detox support.” As far as the doctor knows, Trump’s urine was never tested, and the vitamins in question were made as a mock-up.
As for what a “high grade comprehensive multi vitamin” with “mineral antioxidants,” “liver inflammation,” and “detox support” actually does—no one really knows.
“It means mumbo-jumbo,” Helm said.
Still the former Trump Network doctor insists that it improves health, including his own. When questioned about proof of this, he says that only “11 percent of medicine is evidence-based”—which he read in a British Medical Journal study on 3,000 treatments. “There is an inherent assumption that everything in the medical world is evidence-based, which it isn’t,” he said.
Later he seemed to revert back to the idea that science is valuable, arguing that the things the company searches for in urine, like antioxidant status, give a clear picture of “imbalances” in a person’s body—hence the need for vitamins.
He sent The Daily Beast what he called a “heavily referenced” monograph that proves the scientific validity of Privatest. The 12-page paper fails to mention a single experiment on humans and mostly reads like an advertisement written by scientists. Beyond the absence of actual data, it was not published in a peer-review journal, meaning the theory itself was never reviewed by experts.
Pieter Cohen, a Harvard doctor and expert on supplements, thinks the paper uses “polysyllabic scientific words” to confuse people into thinking it’s real. “If you don’t have experimental data that has been vetted by experts, you don’t have any evidence of anything,” said Cohen. “This chapter is not worth the pixels it takes up on our monitors.”
In regards to the absence of human trials, the doctor points to a lack of funds. “It’s something that requires an enormous amount of funding”—money that neither Trump nor the company were, evidently, willing to spend.
Cohen says the paper, like the company itself, appears to be a marketing ploy masquerading as science. “There is zero evidence that is actually doing what they say it was,” he said. “This is a scam, it’s a bogus program to make profit for the people who are selling it. It’s fantasy.”
In a follow up email, the Trump Network doctor said that Privatest is based on a simplified version of “nutritional biochemical testing,” which “thousands of physicians around the country” use. He said the doctors behind it received “thousands of testimonials” about the benefits of the vitamins curated by Privatest—most often, increased energy and stamina. “I still get calls from people asking what else they can take ‘that will be as good,’” he wrote.
Britt Hermes is a former naturopathic doctor and author of The Naturopathic Diaries, a blog aimed at contextualizing the false information proliferated by the naturopathic profession. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Hermes said the Privatest is a perfect encapsulation of a tactic naturopaths are “fond” of—namely, diagnostic tests that make remarkable claims. “The problem is that no urine test is FDA approved to diagnose a nutritional deficiency,” she said. Adding later: “any product that is sold by a naturopath almost guarantees that there is no reliable scientific data to support whatever health claims are made.”
Cohen, the Harvard doctor, also argues that Trump not taking the product, or at least not doing so publicly, further undermines its validity.
“I’ve never seen anything to say that Trump himself was taking these supplements, so if he’s not going to even spend $200 to purchase the supplements how could he be encouraging and them using his name?” Cohen said. “He’s not saying that he knows of science to support it or believes in the science.”
But the former Trump Network doctor said there were altruistic motives behind the naturopathic push. The founders of Ideal Health had seen physicians prescribing vitamins and supplements for high profile clients, like professional athletes, and wanted to afford regular Americans the same opportunity. With Trump as the face of the regimen, it would cost approximately $140 for the test and a month’s supply of vitamins, $70 for every subsequent month’s supply, and a recommended $100 PrivaTest retesting every nine months.
The Trump Network also apparently got into children’s nutrition, selling a “Snazzle Snaxxs” kit for $248. The kit included sour cream and onion “Snazzle Twisters,” chocolate bars called “Snazzle Barzzs,” a peach mango drink called “Snazzle Paxxs,” and various other strangely named snacks, something Helm noticed in 2010.
Trump never asked a single question about the makeup of the children’s product, nor expressed any interest in learning about what it did. “He was just interested in if the products were valuable,” the doctor said. Trump’s son reportedly liked the chocolate bars, however.
To evaluate the products, Trump surrounded himself with a group of doctors he called his “scientific advisory committee.”
Clinical nutritionist Jessie Keener, who sat on the scientific advisory board, excused Trump’s apparent lack of interest: “There was no need for him to” know about the product, she said.
“Do you know how insulated that man is?” she said. “I will never know the extent to which he learned about the science.” When asked whether Trump shouldn’t have taken an interest in learning about the product he was selling, she abruptly hung up.
To the public, it certainly appeared that Donald Trump owned, or at least had a large personal stake in the Trump Network. An archived version of the Trump Network website, from 2011, called the organization “a system that Donald Trump himself believes in.”
“I am pleased to be part of this great company and glad you are taking time to learn more about it,” a personal letter from Trump on that website reads.
In 2011, New York Magazine received access to the business mogul as part of a profile on the vitamin scheme. In it, they report that Trump purchased the nutritional company Ideal Health two years prior, rebranding it the Trump Network.
But following financial pressures and disappointed expectations, reported The Washington Post, the Trump Network’s assets were sold off to an organization named Bioceutica, which also sells cosmetics. Neither Trump’s campaign nor Bioceutica responded to a request for comment.
Apparently, Trump had never purchased any part of The Trump Network. Instead, he merely licensed his name and brand to Ideal Health. After the licensing agreement ended in 2011, it was not renewed and Bioceutica purchased its assets for an undisclosed amount.
The doctor who worked with Trump said his disregard for the product was palpable, and ultimately led to the the company’s demise. Perhaps his disregard for “being presidential” will do the same.