10 days ago I wrote a blog post focusing on an advertorial which appeared in the Daily Telegraph for Flora pro.activ drinks. The advertorial, recounted the experiences of ‘Telegraph journalist’ Chris Jones, and how the consumption of Flora pro.activ drinks had, along with other ‘healthy’ lifestyle changes, led to a lowering in Ms Jones’ cholesterol levels. I wanted to engage with Ms Jones about the purported benefits of cholesterol reduction (something I’m sceptical about). However, I was unable to trace Ms Jones, which seemed odd.
Two days after I posted this piece, I received a response from Clare Smith, who has since informed me works for Lexis – a PR company who act for Flora pro.activ products. You can read the comment here. This response justifies the advertorial format, and draws our attention to the fact that Flora pro.activ has paid to run a series of advertorials in the Daily Telegraph using ‘real-life stories’. Clare Smith reassures us that advertorials go through a ‘rigorous approval process’. We are told that Flora pro.activ has been proven to lower cholesterol levels by up to 15 per cent ‘when eaten everyday as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle’. Clare also tells us that Chris Jones is not a journalist after all, but a ‘content editor’ at the Daily Telegraph, and that I can speak to her if I like. She also appears to welcome further debate.
But perhaps the most notable statement from Clare Smith is this:
“We absolutely agree that simply lowering cholesterol without making wider positive changes to one’s diet and lifestyle will not make a significant positive health impact.”
In my response, see here, I seek further clarification. For example, I ask Clare to clarify her role, and enquire as to who it is that performs the approval process for advertorials. I also question why the cholesterol reducing properties of Flora pro-activ are qualified with ‘when taken in conjunction with a healthy diet and lifestyle’. I ask if any attempt has been made to measure the cholesterol lowering properties of Flora pro.activ in isolation. I ask what evidence there is that Flora pro.activ benefits health.
I also ask her if the photograph in the Telegraph that accompanied the piece is Chris Jones, and to email me her phone number and email so I can engage with her directly.
I also refer to this statement “We absolutely agree that simply lowering cholesterol without making wider positive changes to one’s diet and lifestyle will not make a significant positive health impact”, and ask this:
“Flora pro.activ is sold on the basis that it can reduce cholesterol levels. If cholesterol-lowering is of limited value, then this is true, surely, of any product that reduces cholesterol? Would you care to comment?”
I’m expecting a debate, but hear nothing from Clare, and end up sending her an email four days later, telling her that I’m planning a follow-up post, and want to give her right of reply. She assures me that she will be responding, and does so two days later (yesterday). You can read this response here. Clare clarifies her role and tells us that the advertorial process is overseen by Unilever (who make Flora pro.activ). She refers me to some promotional material on the subject. It appears that, in isolation, studies show that the cholesterol-reducing properties of Flora pro.activ products are modest – generally under 10 per cent. Clare Smith also writes:
“as previously mentioned Flora pro.activ is proven to help lower cholesterol by up to 10% and an additional 5% when moving to a healthier diet and lifestyle in the general population.”
Actually, not all this was previously mentioned. We now learn that, in isolation, Flora pro.activ lowers cholesterol ‘by up to 10 per cent’. I wonder what the average reduction is. Let’s call it 7 per cent. Imagine you’re running a cholesterol of 6.5. A 7 per cent reduction would bring it down to 6.0.
But none of this has any real importance, because what’s really important is not the impact the product has on cholesterol levels, but the impact it has on health. Clare Smith does not engage with this issue at all. Also, note her response to my question regarding her assertion that cholesterol reduction is unlikely to ‘make a significant health impact’.
“Lower cholesterol is not of limited value and has been recognised as a major risk factor in developing cardiovascular disease, which is well documented by the WHO and, as already mentioned, supported by the EFSA. Therefore Flora pro.activ products are not of limited value and have been clinically proven to lower cholesterol. Also these products are of even greater value when taken in conjunction with other steps to support a healthy lifestyle, such as eating a healthy diet and taking exercise.”
The first sentence doesn’t seem to make sense. But the argument, overall, appears to be that raised cholesterol is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and that Flora pro.activ reduces cholesterol (note the qualification about healthy lifestyle creeping in at the end, again), so the products are not of limited value. However, this stance is incompatible with Clare’s original assertion about the limited value of cholesterol reduction. It seems to me that some serious back-tracking is going on here. Plus, no evidence has been offered at all that shows Flora pro.activ to have benefits for health (as opposed to cholesterol reduction).
In answer to a commenter’s (Christopher Palmer) questions about the origin of sterols, Clare Smith tells us that “Plant sterols come from vegetable oils such as sunflower or soy, as well as tall oils.” I’d never heard of ‘tall oil’, but Wikipedia informs me that it is “is a viscous yellow-black odorous liquid obtained as a by-product of…wood pulp manufacture.” Christopher also had some questions regarding the writing of the advertorial that remain unanswered.
Clare confirms to me that the photograph is indeed of Chris Jones and that she will ‘email [me] her line manager’s details’. This seems a bit odd, to me. First of all, I was invited to speak to Ms Jones’ directly, and took her up on this offer. I asked for her contact details but actually these have not been forthcoming. Why do I need to go through a ‘line manager’? Do papers even have ‘line managers’? And also, a day later, Clare Smith has not emailed the details of said ‘line manager’ either. This morning, I called the Daily Telegraph to ask to speak to ‘Chris Jones’, and was told they have no record of someone with that name working for them.
This is a long and mucky tale, so let me summarise some of the salient points here:
- Flora pro.activ is claimed to reduce cholesterol levels by ‘up to 10 per cent’. Average reductions are likely significantly less than this. In other words, the product has, on average, very modest impact on cholesterol.
- No evidence has been offered up at all that supports the concept that Flora pro.activ has benefits for health.
- The PR represenative for Flora pro.activ admits to me that cholesterol reduction is unlikely to have significant benefits of health, and then appeared to attempt to backtrack from this comment.
- ‘Telegraph journalist’ Chris Jones turns out not to be a journalist at all. I am invited to speak with her directly. When I ask for her contact details, they are not forthcoming (a week later). Main switchboard at the Daily Telegraph tell me no one by the name of Chris Jones works there according to their records. I am, however, told I will be sent her ‘line manager’s’ contact details, but these have not been forthcoming either.
In Clare Smith’s latest response she assures us that Unilever behaves with ‘honesty, integrity and openness’. I say, let us be the judge of that.