Taking another shot at the $28 billion nutritional supplement industry, two new clinical studies and one meta-analysis of prior studies all funded by the $315 billion U.S. drug industry indicate that multivitamin or mineral supplements are useless in preventing or slowing down chronic diseases, like heart disease or cancer. Conducted by the big-pharma-backed U.S. Preventive Service Task Force, the studies found no evidence that nutritional supplements prevent or slow the progression of age-related cognitive decline or other chronic diseases. “The message is simple: Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified and they should be avoided,” the physicians wrote in an editorial included with the research report. Like other studies by Big-Pharma to discredit the vitamin industry, they ask the wrong questions about the purpose and objectives of supplements.
While urging the public to avoid nutritional supplements, the authors don’t see the hypocrisy and hyperbole of statements of “most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death,” something never claimed by the nutritional industry. When double-Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling published his book, “Vitamin C and the Common Cold” in 1970 it was based on his own personal experimentation with ascorbic acid, taking around 3,000 grams a day. When he prevented himself from getting the common cold or lessening the severity and duration or its symptoms, it caused a revolution in “molecular medicine.” Pauling coined the term “orthomolecular medicine,” referring to the use of high dose of nutritional supplements, like Vitamin C, to treat various conditions from the common cold to cancer. Despite Pauling’s genius, he was discredited by medical profession.
Concluding that all nutritional supplements are worthless from a drug industry-sponsored study goes over the top. Stating emphatically that “their use is not justified and they should be avoided” shows the extreme prejudice with which drug–industry-backed studies make their points. Authors aimed their findings at people that have no signs of nutritional deficiency, namely, the main body of vitamin users in the U.S. and abroad. When the medical industry talks of nutritional deficiencies they’re referring to medical conditions that result from Vitamin D deficiency like rickets, or Vitamin C deficiency like scurvy. Supplement users don’t take them because they believe they have medical vitamin deficiencies, they take them as part of healthy regimen because few can eat enough nutrients in a “normal” diet given the processed nature of most types of foods, whether or not prepared quickly or slowly.
If the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force sought credibility, they shouldn’t make such exaggerated statements regarding the uselessness of vitamins. When the authors suggest that nutritional supplements might be harmful, the commit the same egregious mistake as overly zealous advocates of supplements prone to making false claims. “Study after study comes back negative—yet people continue to take supplements now a record rates,” said Edgar Miller, Johns Hopkins’ professor of medicine and epidemiology, one of the study’s five authors referring to the lack of statistical correlations between supplements and preventing death and chronic disease. Whatever the snake oil salesman said in the past about supplements, today’s nutritional industry makes no claims about products preventing death or disease. Supplement makers might cite research into the expected benefits of one product or another but don’t generally make unscientific claims.
Miller told LiveScience that consumers continue to take nutritional supplements because they believe their diets lack essential nutrients. What Miller didn’t tell LiveScience was about his drug industry funding studies seeking to discredit the nutritional supplement industry. “We believe the case in closed—supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with most mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful,” wrote the editorial. When Miller speaks of “well nourished” adults he’s referring to the soaring obesity rates that don’t reflect traditional kinds of malnutrition, like those in starving countries or once seen on long voyages in the old days. What case does Miller believe is closed: The one against any benefits arising from supplements or the one against exaggerated claims about supplements preventing death or chronic disease?
Focusing attention on nutritional deficiencies was a clever way Big Pharma’s researchers could discredit the supplement industry. Asking all the wrong questions, such as, do vitamins prevent death or chronic disease, creates the study’s self-fulfilling prophecy about the uselessness of supplements. If taking supplements give folks more energy or, like Pauling, help improve immunity to the common cold or any other condition, then why are the study’s authors so willing to paint the supplement industry with such a broad brush? “The industry tries to create the impression that we are deficient, but randomized trials show that we are not at all deficient and we don’t benefit from supplements,” said Miller, stretching his study’s findings to the breaking point. Proving that most vitamin users do not meet the medical definition of “nutritionally deficient” doesn’t mean the products are worthless.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.