The American Association of Nutritional Consultants:
Who and What Does It Represent?

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Whatever your specialty, one thing is certain. If you offer nutrition or dietary counseling as part of your service, you should proclaim your professional status by joining the American Association of Nutritional Consultants. When you display the prestigious A.A.N.C. Membership Certificate on your wall, you make your clients, patients, and professional colleagues aware of your commitment to high standards and professional competence in Nutrition Counseling. And you demonstrate your dedication to the cause of good health through nutrition by supporting your Professional Association.

So stated "An Open Letter To All Health Professionals" in mid-1980s issues of The Nutrition & Dietary Consultant, the monthly publication of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants (AANC). The certificate—printed on imitation parchment paper and complete with gold seal and red ribbon—does indeed look attractive and professional. But those who encounter it would be wise to look closely at what it signifies.

AANC's Roots

According to AANC's founder, Henry Holcomb, the group began operations in 1981 as the American Association of Nutrition & Dietary Consultants (AANDC). During 1983, AANDC assumed its current name and absorbed a similar group, the International Academy of Nutritional Consultants (IANC).

IANC was formed in 1979 by Kurt Donsbach, D.C., founder and president of Donsbach University School of Nutrition, a nonaccredited correspondence school. Donsbach, dubbed "the vitamin king" by the Los Angeles Times, was also board chairman of the National Health Federation, a group that promotes the gamut of dubious health practices. Donsbach has had two criminal convictions. In 1971 he pled guilty to practicing medicine without a license. In 1997, he pled guilty to income tax evasion and smuggling unapproved drugs. His countless commercial ventures have included health-food retailing; supplement manufacturing and marketing; writing, publishing, and broadcasting; distributing dubious credentials; and operating Mexican clinics that administer unsubstantiated treatments for cancer and many other conditions.

Regular IANC membership, which was open to anyone, cost $10 per year (later raised to $12/year) and included a subscription to its journal. "Professional membership," which cost $50 per year, included a directory listing plus a "beautiful certificate for your office." Sustaining membership, $150 a year, entitled members to a 15% discount on advertising in the journal. Most of the 50 or so sustaining members had commercial interests in methods promoted by the journal. Applicants for professional or sustaining membership were asked to name their professional degree and specialty. However, no questions were asked about the origin of the degree, and no effort was made to check the credentials or reputation of any applicant.

In 1979, IANC began publishing The Journal of the International Academy of Nutritional Consultants with a press run of 25,000 copies, most of which were sent free-of-charge to chiropractors. Its first editor was Alan Nittler, M.D., a California physician who had lost his license to practice medicine in 1975 as a result of using unproven "nutritional therapies." After three issues he was replaced by Hans Kugler, Ph.D., president of the International Academy of Wholistic Health and Medicine, and author of Seven Keys to a Longer Life. In 1981, the journal was renamed Health Express, Donsbach took over as editor-in-chief, and marketing was begun through health food stores and newsstands. During most of 1982, Holcomb served as editor, general manager, and director of sales, while Donsbach was listed on the masthead either as editorial director or as editor-in-chief.

AANC's membership structure was similar to that of IANC. Durinv the 1980s, associate membership cost $30, professional membership cost $50, sustaining membership cost $100, and lifetime membership was $250. In June 1986, it listed 111 lifetime members. During most of AANC's existence, membership applications have asked nothing about qualifications but noted that "degree initials, if any" would appear on the certificate if included on the application.

AANC's "Journal"

AANC's "journal" began in 1983 as a tabloid newspaper called The Nutrition and Dietary Consultant and was renamed The Nutritional Consultant later that year. When IANC and AANC merged, their publications merged to become The Nutritional Consultant & Health Express ("The Magazine People Read For Nutritional Advice"). Toward the end of 1984, it was called Your Nutritional Consultant ("The Magazine America Reads for Nutritional Advice"). In 1985, it again became The Nutrition & Dietary Consultant ("America's Only Journal For The Practicing Professional").

Until the mid-1980s, Henry Holcomb was designated as publisher and his wife, Myra E. Holcomb, who was also AANC's executive secretary, was listed as editor and general manager. The Statement of Ownership, Management and Circulation submitted to the Postal Service in October 1985 listed the two of them as owners and declared a paid circulation of 8,196, down from 12,685 in 1984. In March 1986, however, Henry's name disappeared without explanation from AANC publications and Myra was designated as publisher and editor. At the same time, the journal reverted to tabloid newspaper format in order to save money.

AANC said that its journal was "edited specifically for you who do now, or plan in the future, to earn all or part of your income through counseling on good health or proper nutrition, and for those of you who offer nutritional advice as part of your overall professional services." Each issue contained articles promoting unproven and unscientific practices as well as ads for questionable products, some of which have been subjected to government enforcement action for misbranding.

For the first few issues after the merger that formed AANC, its national board of counselors was listed on the journal's masthead with Donsbach as chairman. But a few months later, this listing was dropped and Donsbach's name appeared as one of six contributing editors. At various times, AANC's letterhead listed seven, eight, or nine members on its national board of counselors, one of whom, Gary Pace, sported a "Ph.D., degree from Donsbach University.

Pace practiced as a nutrition counselor in Garden City, New York. In 1985, New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams filed a civil suit accusing him of practicing medicine without a license, false advertising, and illegal use of educational credentials. Pace's schemes, said Abrams, had induced hundreds of consumers to pay him for improper physical examinations, worthless laboratory tests (including hair analysis and herbal crystallization analysis), bogus nutritional advice, and unnecessary vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements. Abrams said that at least 251 clients had paid Pace an average of $307 during the previous four years. Some of Pace's female clients reported that Pace had examined their breasts or genitals. Several clients underwent significant expense to obtain medical reassurance that they did not have various diseases that Pace said they had. One was advised by her medical doctor to stop taking vitamin A because her palms had become yellow as a result of overdosage. Pace also taught in the extension division of a local community college and hosted a radio program. The case was settled with an injunction forbidding Pace from engaging in the unlawful practice of medicine or using "Ph.D." or "Dr." in dealings with the public unless he obtains recognized credentials. During the same period, Abrams obtained a court order forbidding Donsbach University from marketing its courses to New York State residents.

Shortly after Abrams filed suits against Pace and Donsbach, Pace was removed from the AANC board and Donsbach's name disappeared from the masthead of The Nutrition and Dietary Consultant.

AANC Directories

AANC's 1986 National Profile Directory of Nutritional Consultants listed 686 practicing "professional nutritionists," but stated that since listing required a written request, the list "in no way represents the total membership of AANC which at press time stood at 5,618." (This number was probably inaccurate because it is identical with the number listed in the 1985 directory.) Directory listings included the consultant's name, address, telephone number, tests utilized, modalities offered, and areas of specialization. Nineteen percent of those cited were chiropractors. Nine percent had no listed degree, 12% a B.A. or B.S., 10% an M.A. or M.S., 23% a Ph.D., and 3% a medical degree. The rest displayed one or more of some 40 sets of initials, many of which I could not recognize.

"Tests utilized" include complete workup by a medical doctor, hair analysis, herbal crystallization analysis, urine analysis, blood analysis, a test to determine metabolic type, a saliva test, iridology, kinesiology, computerized questionnaires, diet analysis, and cytotoxic testing.

"Modalities offered" include acupressure, acupuncture, intravenous chelation therapy, oral chelation therapy, general medicine, detoxification, herbology, homeopathy, hypnosis, naturopathy, nursing, optometry, osteopathy, reflexology, colonic irrigation, chiropractic, dentistry, biofeedback, hydrotherapy, massage, yoga and megavitamin and mineral therapy.

The "nutritional support specialties" were allergies, cancer, diabetic nutrition, drug rehabilitation, endocrine disturbances, general nutrition, geriatric nutrition, hypoglycemia, pediatric nutrition, skin conditions, smoking cessation, sports nutrition, stress management, temporomandibular joint dysfunction, weight control, premenstrual syndrome, prenatal nutrition, heart and blood conditions, digestive problems, and spines, bones, joints.

AANC's directories contained ads similar to those in its journal. The 1985 edition included ads for homeopathic remedies, pau d'arco (a supposed cancer remedy), amino acid products, two "oral chelation" products that were subsequently ordered off the market, a colonic irrigator, and hair analysis (for which AANC members received a 36% discount). The 1986 directory included ads for food supplements and a Mexican hospital where laetrile and other quack treatments are administered.

Anyone Could Join

Membership in AANC and its predecessors has been open to anyone. In 1983, Sassafras Herbert (a poodle) became a professional member of AANDC and Charlie Herbert (a cat) secured professional membership in IANC. Both were household pets of Victor Herbert, M.D., J.D., a prominent nutrition scientist. All Dr. Herbert did was submit their name and address plus $50. Donsbach reacted to this news by claiming that that professional members in IANC were required to have "adequate professional background . . . either a degree in the healing arts or a graduate of Donsbach University." The IANC application had asked four questions on professional background, but "Charlie" had left them blank. Despite widespread publicity of the pets' entry into the world of nutritional consultation, their memberships were not cancelled. After the AANDC membership year was up, Dr. Herbert obtained a new "professional membership" in AANC by sending $50 plus the name and address of another dog.

In January 1985, ads in The Nutrition & Dietary Consultant began inviting readers to send for a "Member Application and Qualifications Questionnaire." The application asked for name, address, phone number, school attended, major, degree and year earned, how long the applicant has been involved professionally in the field of nutrition, names of other health associations to which the applicant belongs, and the names of two nutrition-oriented health care professionals who can provide references. After this process began, an individual known to me completed an application under an assumed name, listing a degree from a nutrition diploma mill and providing appropriate references. Membership was granted as soon as the application was received. AANC did write to the persons listed as references—not for information about the applicant, but to ask them to join AANC! Another person I know bypassed the application process and simply sent a $50 check and the name and address of her daughter's pet hamster (see below). She too was notified of acceptance within a few days. Several subsequent issues of The Nutrition and Dietary Consultant contained a coupon application for membership which, as in previous years, asked only the applicant's name, address, and "degree initials, if any."

This certificate was issued during the mid-1980s to a pet hamster
whose name has been removed to protect the owner's identity.

In 2004, Ben Goldacre, who writes a "Bad Science" column for the British Guardian newspaper, obtained a professional member certificate in the name of his cat, who had died in 2003.

"Certification"

AANC's professional members are also invited to become "Certified Nutrition Consultants." According to AANC:

The trademark designation CNC after a Nutritional Consultant's name testifies to the world that the practitioner's qualifications have been certified by his or her Professional Association—that he or she has met professional requirements in addition to, and beyond, normal academic studies and/or professional experience.

Some AANC literature referred to an "RNC" designation for "Registered Nutritional Consultant." In 1989, AANC listed about 200 "Certified Nutritional Consultants," including James F. Balch, Jr., M.D., and his wife Phyllis, coauthors of Prescription for Nutritional Healing, an irresponsible book that many health-food retailers use to prescribe products for their customers

According to an article by Myra Holcomb, CNC applicants had to be professional members in good standing in AANC "and have met the high eligibility requirements for membership." However, the CNC application form asked nothing about training, experience or qualifications, but merely requested the names of three professional references (who, when I applied, were not contacted). The requirements included:

The CNC nutrition exam was divided into sections on basic anatomy, principles of nutrition, vitamin therapy, nutrition and common ailments, biochemical individuality, higher nutrition, orthomolecular nutrition, nutrition against disease, diet and disease, child nutrition, geriatrics, acquired body toxins and their elimination, and psychodietetics. Candidates were required to submit a notarized statement that no "second party" helped with the test, but they were given a list of books, purchasable from AANC, each of which could help answer the questions in one section of the test. Successful applicants received an attractive certificate.

The test questions were divided about equally into multiple choice and true/false types. Candidates were asked to choose "the most accurate" answer, even though in some cases, "if the candidate is real sharp and wants to get tricky, he or she might be able to point to special cases or circumstances where none of the choices is correct." Nutrition experts who reviewed portions of the exam at my request noted that many questions had no correct answer and that the test contained many misspelled words. The clinical significance of some questions—like one about whether whole wheat flour could support the life of weevils—were rather obscure.

The best known individual who displays AANC's "CNC" credential is probably Phyllis A. Balch, CNC, co-author of Prescription for Nutritional Healing, a book that recommends large numbers of herbs and dietary suppleents for hundreds of diseases and conditions. Since 1999, I have located several Web sites operated by others who identify themselves as members of AANC, IANC, AANDC, and/or use the "CNC" designation:

"Nutritionist" Licensing

In the mid-1980s, dietitians began spearheading bills to restrict use of the word "nutritionist" to individuals with recognized credentials. Some of the bills also define "nutrition practice" and restrict it to licensed practitioners. This drive was stimulated largely by the rise of nonaccredited nutrition schools and of organizations such as AANC. The dietitians believe—as I do—that government should try to protect the public against individuals who misrepresent their credentials. AANC opposed these bills and even drafted a model "Nutritional Counselors Licensing Act" that would have enabled its members to gain licensure. However, as far as I know, its activities had little political impact.

Current Status

I stopped tracking AANC in 1989 and saw no further indication of its existence until January 1998, when Donsbach announced that he had reassumed its leadership in 1994 but later passed it to Wendell W. Whitman, B.A., M. Div., N.D. The announcement appeared as an editorial in the first issue of Healthkeepers Magazine, which was described as a quarterly magazine formed by "a merger of the former Journal of the Certified Natural Health Professional and the HealthKeepers Journal into an all encompassing publication which is a voice for all natural health professionals and nutritionists."

The magazine describes Whitman as a nutritional consultant with 12 years of experience. His naturopathic degree is from Clayton University a nonaccredited correspondence school in Birmingham, Alabama. Whitman is also the cofounder of the National Association of Certified Natural Health Professionals and cofounder and dean of Trinity College of Natural Health, a correspondence school offering Master Herbalist (M.H.) and Doctor of Naturopathy (N.D.) "degrees" and a Certificate in Nutritional Counseling (C.N.C.). The college is said to be "certified" by American Naturopathic Medical Certification and Accreditation Board, Inc., (which is not an agency recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education). The school's Web site has listed several hundred naturopathy graduates. A biographical sketch on the CNHP Web site states that Whitman uses kinesiology, iridology, herbology, and nutritional therapy in his work. HealthKeepers also has a Web site.

Currently, the AANC and the National Association of Certified Natural Health Professionals are both located in Indiana. In July 2004, the online AANC directory listed about 850 names and the online National Association of Certified Natural Health Professionals directory listed about 4,700 CNHP's. In my opinion, these groups have one potentially valuable aspect: Membership in them is a reliable sign of someone not to consult for advice.

This article was revised on November 27, 2007.