Bad doctors

The quack behind the MSG scare is still stoking fear for profit

How Russell Blaylock worked his way into every reprehensible health scam from anti-chemo to anti-vaxx.
Bad doctors

The quack behind the MSG scare is still stoking fear for profit

How Russell Blaylock worked his way into every reprehensible health scam from anti-chemo to anti-vaxx.

In 1994, Dr. Russell Blaylock, a respected neurosurgeon who had begun drifting toward the edges of mainstream science, wrote a book called Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills. It was about the dangers of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, the target of a health scare that started with a letter to the editor written by a doctor who was mistaken for a medical opinion.

Since then, we’ve learned that MSG was unfairly maligned. It doesn’t cause cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. It has not been shown to cause headaches, according to a meta review of MSG studies done in 2016 for the journal Headache Pain. The Food and Drug Administration noted that while there is evidence that consuming 3 grams of MSG at a time without food may cause mild, short-lived adverse symptoms, this is unlikely given that most servings are around .5 grams — and, of course, the MSG in question is always served with food.

Amazingly, MSG still has a bad rap. (You’ve probably passed a Chinese restaurant that, fearful of the stigma, has taped a “No MSG” sign in the window.) Thanks to people like Blaylock, who used his legitimate credentials to prop up junky science, it’s one of the most successful health hysteria campaigns ever.

Since then, Blaylock — “No stranger to scare mongering for profit,” as the health journalist David Despain wrote — has hitched his wagon of books and nutritional supplements to just about every medical conspiracy theory that has come along, with a remarkable ability to appeal to both the extreme right and extreme left. He’s anti-vaxx. He’s anti-GMO. He has written that elderly patients were euthanized under Obamacare and told InfoWars that fluoride in drinking water is a eugenics program that causes ADHD. He has claimed in at least one lecture that that poor nutrition is part of an Illuminati agenda to make people violent and reduce the global population. He was once named “Quack of the Day” by The Vaccine Conspiracy Theorist, a pro-vaccine blog about the anti-vaxx movement.

He’s leveraged these claims into a health supplement called “Brain Repair Formula” and a gig with the right-leaning, conspiracy-friendly publication Newsmax, where he writes a monthly newsletter called Blaylock Wellness Report. The newsletter has 28,000 subscribers, according to Newsmax’s media kit. At $54.95 per subscriber, that’s around $1.5 million a year in revenue, shared somehow between Blaylock and his publisher.

All of Blaylock’s claims are clearly bunk, but I was more interested in the man behind them. How does someone go from a 25-year career as a board-certified neurosurgeon to one of the most citable names in the anti-vaxx movement? How can that person simultaneously be an expert on vaccines, MSG, agriculture, chemtrails, and the deleterious effects of aluminum cookware? And finally, does this quack really believe his own crap?

Dr. Russell Blaylock went to medical school at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine. Born in 1945, he graduated in 1971 and spent his internship and residency at the Medical University of South Carolina. In 1977, he published new strategies for surgically removing brain tumors and treating hydrocephalus. Unlike his later work, these ideas were peer-reviewed and backed by scientific rigor.

It’s unclear exactly when Blaylock moved from mainstream to fringe, but he may have first wandered into the anti-establishment milieu in 1990. That was the year 60 Minutes aired an episode that claimed older Americans had fillings sealed with dental amalgam — a mixture of different metals, including silver and trace amounts of mercury — that caused cancer, ALS, and Alzheimer's. Panic struck and the American Dental Association had to ask dentists not to remove perfectly safe fillings from needlessly scared patients.

The entire idea of mercurial toxicity from fillings has now been debunked. The dentist who drove the scare with his interview on 60 Minutes had his dental license revoked in 1995 for providing “grossly negligent care” and performing unnecessary treatments on patients who didn’t even have amalgam fillings in the first place.

Though the matter appeared settled to any reasonable burden of proof, Blaylock bought it hook, line, and sinker. Ten years later, he was still banging the amalgam drum: “The media are often too lazy or not sophisticated enough to understand the subtleties of the science being discussed,” he wrote in 2005. “As a result, the public is assured that dental amalgam is perfectly safe and that the question has been carefully examined.” The counter-narrative “is just another piece of ‘junk science’ to come out of the government/industry coalition,” he wrote.

Blaylock is not a dentist. He is not an oncologist. He has never received any nutritionist qualifications or formal education — or if he has, he’s never mentioned them in any of his biographies. (Repeated attempts to get comment from Blaylock for this story were not acknowledged.) And yet, he believes he can evaluate fringe medical theories in these and other areas — even when the scientific establishment and relevant regulatory agencies contradict him.

Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills was well-received among its intended audience. The book was “upsetting” but “responsibly researched,” in the words of Alternative Medicine’s Reviews. “Some educated people have advised caution in that they have said, ‘We don’t want to scare people, so tone it down,’” wrote Dr. George Schwartz, the author of his own MSG book who has since lost his medical license, in the forward. “'I ask them to read Dr. Blaylock’s remarkable and detailed book to see if they can still urge this caution. To them I ask, ‘Is it prudent to keep your voice low and scare nobody when poisoning is occurring on a day-to-day basis?’”

The message of Blaylock’s book, directed at the exploding 1990s middle class, was that easy, cheap, highly processed foods were full of poison called excitotoxins. Excitotoxicity is a neurological symptom of an underlying problem, like a stroke or a spinal cord injury where constant, aggressive overstimulation in nerve cells eventually causes those cells to die. An “excitotoxin,” on the other hand, is a pseudoscientific concept that few in the science-backed medical community recognize. The idea is that, supposedly, certain food can cause excitotoxicity when an otherwise healthy person eats it.

Excitotoxins are everywhere, Blaylock said, hidden in food additives like MSG and aspartame, causing ailments like cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s, and a collection of undesirable conditions he alleges are found in “MSG babies” including obesity, short stature, violent behavior, and difficulty reproducing. Food manufacturers such as Pillsbury and Campbell’s were getting rich off of MSG-enhanced foods, Blaylock wrote, while the FDA refused to take action. MSG and aspartame are generally recognized as safe, according to the FDA, but Blaylock and his work continue to be cited in publications including The Huffington Post, The Christian Broadcasting Network, and alternative health sites.

“Is it prudent to keep your voice low and scare nobody when poisoning is occurring on a day-to-day basis?”

Where do you go after a smash success like MSG? In 2001, Blaylock opened an LLC called Advanced Nutritional Concepts, which based on its classification and annual reports appears to be a pass-through for Blaylock's income as a nutrition speaker. In 2002, he published Health and Nutrition Secrets That Can Save Your Life, a book about how avoiding toxins in everyday food could help you live longer. In 2003, he published Natural Strategies for the Cancer Patient, which showed the dangers of chemotherapy against better, more natural treatment options like fresh vegetables and supplements. He’s also the author of Cracking the GMO Code, a booklet and DVD package that Newsmax distributes to his newsletter subscribers.

Blaylock tends to target his message toward Christian readers, who he says are more open to his message than his corrupt colleagues in the world of science. He was a frequent expert guest on the Christian Broadcasting Network and Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club in the mid-2000s. Occasionally, he’ll indulge in talk of miracle cures and the resilience of God’s design.

As wacky as he sounds on paper, it’s easy to see why people find Blaylock convincing. He really is a board-certified neurosurgeon (I checked), and he has a smooth bedside manner. “Here’s the thing about Blaylock: He’s the kind of guy your mother and grandmother would trust — and the clean-cut, well-spoken doctor is quite effective in manufacturing a similar orthorexia-inducing message to sell his packages,” Despain wrote.

In a scene from the documentary The Truth About Cancer: A Global Quest, Blaylock stands comfortably, hands clasped at this belt, talking animatedly among a copse of trees. He’s tall and lean, with an angular face and combed-back gray hair. In a blue dress shirt and a striped tie, he looks — well, he looks like a doctor. Confident. Knowledgeable. He tells documentarian Ty Bollinger that flavonoids like curcumin, quercetin, and ellagic acid can protect the brain from cancer and chemotherapy.

“They sound like miracle herbs,” Bollinger says. “They are. They’re incredible, but this is what you expect when God made something,” Blaylock says. For Bollinger, this journey is personal. After he lost family members to cancer despite conventional treatment, he set out to find why medical science fails cancer patients when there are so many obvious cures, like Vitamin C, sage, and green tea. When someone like Bollinger, who feels like the medical establishment has failed him, goes looking for alternative medical theories, there’s a small circuit of people like Blaylock happy to oblige.

There’s “Food Babe” Vani Hart, Julian the megavitamin guy, Barbara the anti-vaccination Warrior Mom, Mike the superfood-selling blogger, and Joe the tanning bed salesman, who recently had to pay $5 million in refunds to his customers because he sold tanning beds that “reduce wrinkles and prevent cancer.”

These experts tend to be Google University graduates and doctors (usually retired doctors) eager to hold forth on the dangers of the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, and Big Pharma and its many conspiratorial lackeys. Like Blaylock, they’re versatile. They’ll talk about nutrition, cancer, government conspiracy, and God — sometimes in the same interview. But more than anything, they’re all fired up about the most potentially damaging alternative health myth today: the vilification of vaccines.

In 1997, prestigious medical journal The Lancet published Andrew Wakefield’s notorious study showing a link between vaccines and autism. That study would famously be retracted, and repeatedly, exhaustively debunked, and Wakefield eventually lost his medical license for acting unethically.

Like many others, Blaylock enthusiastically picked up the anti-vaxxer party line. In an InfoWars interview, Blaylock described vaccines as a “medical genocide” perpetrated on patients. He wrote a list of 15 things you can do if you are forcibly vaccinated, including putting an ice pack on the injection site, taking fish oil, and juicing smoothies of celery and parsley twice a day. He also recommended flavonoids like curcumin, quercetin, and ellagic acid.

Who is getting forcibly vaccinated? What, exactly, are an ice pack and fish oil going to do to truncated strains of virus DNA injected into the bloodstream? Celery and parsley in a juicer? Doesn’t it seem strange that the exact same flavonoids guard against vaccination, Alzheimer’s, and chemo?

Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist who runs the website QuackWatch, told me that fact-checking individual claims from someone like Blaylock is basically impossible. Instead, he suggested following a list of common quackery warning signs. One of the biggest warning signs is selling herbs or dietary supplements, especially when they’re packaged with claims that everyone should take them. “Many people are prescribed Vitamin D or B-12 by doctors,” Barrett said. “But anyone who says that everyone’s health would be improved by their vitamins should be avoided.” But does the snake oil salesman believe his own pitch? Barrett was reluctant to speculate. However, he said most conspiracy nut doctors are probably truly representing their beliefs. Belief in alternative medicine doesn’t necessarily correlate with education, according to a 1998 survey of alternative medicine patients published in JAMA. In fact, more educated people were more likely to use alternative medicines.

Blaylock may be one of those people who are educated enough to know better. “Given the kind of conspiratorial YouTube videos he's making these days, I think it's probably safe to say he believes his own theories — that is, he’s not making them up to manipulate people,” said Dr. Alan Levinovitz, a professor at James Madison University who chronicled false claims made by Blaylock and others in his book The Gluten Lie and Other Myths About What We Eat.

“Experts” like Blaylock may be as sincere as their followers, he said, even if their advice is actually destructive. “People always experience inexplicable pain, and other people want to relieve it, so they come up with explanations and methods that are born of both a desire for profit and a genuine desire to help,” he said. It’s conceivable that despite his track record of scaremongering, Blaylock truly does think he’s doing the right thing by writing his newsletter, giving talks, and shilling herbal supplements — except for one thing: Blaylock’s work seems to prey on the elderly.

Doesn’t it seem strange that the exact same flavonoids guard against vaccination, Alzheimer’s, and chemo?

Older people are afraid of cancer, ALS, and Alzheimer’s. In 2009, they were afraid of government “death panels.” In 1990, they were afraid of metal amalgam fillings they had implanted decades earlier. Elderly people are always afraid of losing their faculties and independence, which is why Blaylock repeatedly comes back to topics like brain health and memory function.

Blaylock is so concerned about senior citizen brain function that he endorses and formulates Cresceo™, a mental health vitamin supplement that can be had at only $40 for a month’s supply on Amazon. (Barrett also said that words like “natural” and “nontoxic” should be a red flag — and anyone claiming that supplements can perform vague miracles like “improving memory” might even be making an illegal marketing claim, a mistake that no serious expert would commit.)

"I personally formulated Cresceo to include the most essential natural ingredients necessary to promote healthy brain function and improve memory," Blaylock says in a quote on Cresceo's website. It all seems pretty damning, but then again, the doctor himself is a senior citizen. Maybe he’s succumbed to his own fear.

Despite his ubiquitousness on the internet, it’s very difficult to get ahold of Blaylock. His phone number is unlisted. His websites do not include contact information. I tried to reach him through Newsmax, but his newsletter publisher declined to respond. He claims to be part of the editorial board for the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, but a representative there said that Blaylock had been unreachable and would soon be replaced. Blaylock’s website also claims he is a visiting professor of biology at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi, but a spokesperson there told me that he gave a few lectures for a couple of months around 2008 and hasn’t been heard from since. He hasn’t joined Alex Jones on InfoWars since 2013. I even asked one of his critics, McGill University’s Joe Schwarcz, who said he couldn’t track the man down either. “I also tried,” he said in an email. “Like many quacks, unreachable.”

Even for long-standing colleagues, Blaylock appears to have disappeared. Anna Strunecka, who co-authored articles with Blaylock for several years — articles that were dismissed here in the U.S. and drew similar ire in Strunecka’s native Czech Republic — said she had been unable to reach him for over a year. (After one particularly controversial discussion on vaccines, Strunecka’s former workplace, Charles University, put out a statement dismissing her remarks and declaring that she no longer had any working relationship with it.)

Blaylock is still writing and posting on social media regularly, however. In the context of Facebook, it’s easy to connect the popularity of fake medical advice to the viral fake news phenomenon that punctuated the 2016 election. But while there is a clear link between the rise of truthiness and the success of people like Blaylock, it’s also true that the medical industry has left a lot of people behind — and nutritional supplements are much cheaper than chemo.

“Like many quacks, unreachable.”

Unfortunately, there is a real cost to some of these medical scams. Besides the money desperate people are willing to spend on supplements, vitamins, and quick cures, patients who are afraid of mainstream medicine can avoid effective treatment — or withhold it from their children. But none of these dangers hold a candle to the deaths and misery caused by outbreaks in unvaccinated children. Diseases we thought we had destroyed, like whooping cough and measles, are spreading and killing vulnerable kids. Blaylock is now 71. He lives outside of Jackson, Mississippi. His current focus is cancer, all types of it. He is obsessed with food; most of his prescriptions are for food. Eat berries to prevent heart attacks and cure cancer. Don’t eat sausage or you’ll get cancer. Drink green tea to prevent diabetes and treat cancer.

He closes his newsletter subscription pitch on his website with an impassioned plea to ignore the FDA and the EPA and the other “alphabet organizations.” The world is dangerous, he says. You know it. He knows it. He acknowledges the troubling reality: There are those who will lie, over and over, for years and years, just to line their pockets. If we don’t pay attention, he writes, we deserve what we get when “we put our trust in those who should not be trusted.” Unfortunately, Blaylock is just one member of the pantheon of quacks who have peddled fear and false hope for centuries.

Ian Birnbaum is a freelance writer covering tech, video games, and culture. Illustrations by Warren Heller.