Are supplements really useless?
Of course not, but that’s what the media would have you believe in the latest hit job on dietary supplements. Action Alert!
A recent meta-analysis—a review of over 100 different randomized controlled trials—found that multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C showed no benefits in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, or premature death but did find benefits for B-vitamins in preventing stroke. Despite glaring issues with the analysis, and positive findings regarding the benefits of supplements notwithstanding (not only in this meta-analysis but in a number of others), the media is replete with headlines such as “Yet Another Study Says Vitamin Supplements Are Worthless.” This reporting evidences the media’s penchant to twist the facts to fit a particular narrative about supplements—one which benefits drug companies that spend billions on advertising each year.
First, the actual findings of the study are being widely misreported. Far from proving there are no health benefits from supplements, the study found that B-vitamins such as B12 and folic acid were associated with a 20% reduction in risk of stroke. As our Scientific Director Dr. Rob Verkerk has pointed out, had the 20% reduction in risk of stroke found for folic acid been found for a drug, Pharma companies would have been shouting the result from the rooftops. To put this in perspective, the number needed to treat to protect against one case of stroke with B-vitamins was 176, while that for statins found by a meta-analysis carried out by the Cochrane Collaboration was 196.
The study itself also suffered from a number of limitations, very few of which are discussed in the articles claiming that supplements are “useless.” First, many of the studies included in the meta-analysis used Pfizer’s Centrum multivitamin. A look at Centrum’s ingredients shows that many of the vitamins are synthetic and are present in the least absorbable form. For example, Centrum contains synthetic vitamin E rather than the full range of vitamin E compounds that optimize its beneficial functions. Many mainstream vitamins contain folic acid and cyanocobalamin (B12). This is important because a substantial portion of the population—around 30%—is unable to metabolize these forms of vitamin B and require the methylated versions (folate and methylcobalamin). (Note that even though folate may be superior to folic acid for many people, the meta-analysis showed that supplementing with folic acid still imparts benefits—if folate were used in the studies, the benefit would likely have been even greater.) Centrum is also full of other chemicals, including preservatives with known negative health effects such as sodium benzoate and butylated hydroxyanisole.
The point is that Centrum and other vitamins of its kind, given these ingredients, are hardly the best examples of vitamins to use in a study looking into the potential health benefits of supplements—no integrative doctor worth his or her salt would recommend them. There’s also the question of dosage. The dosages used in many of the studies the authors reviewed did not exceed the abysmally low recommended daily allowances (RDAs) set by public health bureaucrats: the RDA for vitamin D, for example, is a mere 600 IU/day, whereas the Vitamin D Council recommends 5,000 IU/day for adults. Low vitamin dosages are not likely to confer therapeutic benefits to those who take them, once again demonstrating weakness of the meta-analysis.
There are more problems with the meta-analysis and the reporting that surrounds it. Not only did the studies that the authors reviewed mostly look at Centrum—they only looked at what effect a few nutrients had on a limited number of conditions: stroke, heart attack, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. The media takes the results of this narrow study to make the extraordinary claim that vitamins don’t work, period. This is irresponsible journalism that could lead to real harm: how many people will stop taking their vitamins as a result of this sloppy reporting?
By focusing so narrowly on the effect of a few nutrients from a low-quality multivitamin on a limited number of conditions, the authors seem to have stacked the deck for a negative result—a result that has been irresponsibly reported by the media. Claiming that supplements are “useless” requires a willful ignorance of the scientific literature. What about the demonstrated benefits of magnesium or vitamin K2 on the development of cardiovascular disease—or CoQ10, fish oil, resveratrol, etc.? Or the proven benefits of supplements to support bone, brain, or immune health? Did the media care to bring up any of these studies when they claimed supplements were “useless”?
It seems fairly obvious why supplements are so consistently attacked in the media. Big Pharma spends about $3 billion each year marketing to drugs to consumers, about $90 million of which is print advertising. Media companies, ever reliant on ad dollars, would hate to see that money disappear by, say, reporting honestly about supplements, which are Big Pharma’s competition.
Biased journalism that misinforms consumers about the benefits of supplements is a major threat to consumers’ ability to take control of their health without expensive and oftentimes dangerous drugs. But there are other dangers that would eliminate consumer access to supplements altogether. We’ve been reporting on the FDA’s New Dietary Ingredient (NDI) guidance which, if implemented unchanged, would wipe thousands of supplements off the market by forcing products that have been on the market safely for years to go through a system akin to a drug pre-approval process. Read more about that issue here, and click below to take action on this critical issue.
The drug industry, along with the biased media and federal agencies they exert influence over, is undermining cheap, safe, and effective natural medicine in the hope that they can sell us more of their synthetic, ineffective, expensive drugs. We cannot let them succeed.
Action Alert! Write to the FDA, with a copy to Congress, and tell them to modify their NDI guidance to protect consumer access to dietary supplements. Please send your message immediately.