Supplements manufacturers market untested benefits while avoiding real-world risks
Last Monday, I wrote about supplements manufacturers using “free speech” to push back against regulators trying to enforce labeling laws on their products—a trend that continues today, albeit often from influencers who somehow argue 1st Amendment rights are an antidote to the “problem” of vaccines.
As I noted, manufacturers often pretend their products are both benign (as in, doing no harm) and healing (as in, biologically beneficial). But these products are anything but benign, and have led to real-world harm.
Here are a few examples:
A 1996 study of 18,000 people showed that people exposed to asbestos who were taking megavitamins with large doses of vitamin A and beta-carotene were 28 percent more at risk of developing lung cancer and 17 percent more at risk for developing heart disease.
A 2004 study in Copenhagen conducted 14 randomized trials with 170,000 people and discovered that those taking large amounts of vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene were more likely to develop intestinal cancer.
A 2005 study at John Hopkins School of Medicine performed a meta-analysis of 19 studies with over 136,000 people. Those taking megavitamins were at an increased risk of early death.
Another 2005 study of 9,000 people found increased risks of cancer and heart disease in those taking large doses of vitamin E.
A 2011 study at the Cleveland Clinic involving 36,000 men found a 17 percent increased risk of prostate cancer in those consuming vitamin E and/or selenium.
I understand the frustration around “Western” medicine. Americans have to suffer a for-profit medical industry that favors the wealthy and drains the savings accounts of the middle and lower classes, putting millions in debt—currently over 23 million Americans owe some form of medical debt. Citizens are collateral damage in an ongoing trilateral war between pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and hospital systems, with lobbyists from each constantly pulling and pushing regulators in every direction except the one that leads to socialized medicine.
My wife and I have just switched to our sixth insurance provider in under four years. We’ve lost thousands of dollars since the pandemic began due to deductibles alone. I’m as frustrated at our government’s flaccid response to regulating medical pricing in favor of its citizens as anyone else. Yet I’m also perturbed by an “alternative” health industry that capitalizes on people’s confusion and fears around science and medicine, and profits from their willingness to believe in untested and often unfounded health claims.
The modern supplements surge is in large part thanks to a fawning 1992 Time cover story that waxed poetic on the luminous benefits of megavitamins. Terms like antioxidants and free radicals entered the public vernacular. Studies showed that diets filled with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables resulted in better health outcomes. Supplements manufacturers ran with this narrative.
Pediatrician Paul Offit wrote about the mindset at the time:
If fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants—and people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables are healthier—then people who take supplemental antioxidants should also be healthier.
Isolating minerals and vitamins from food sources is not the same thing as eating the foods that provide those benefits. Organic interactions in foods likely provide those benefits. Removing them and increasing their quantity doesn’t equate to better health. Too much is often too much. The dose makes the poison, and yes, what starts as healthy can turn deadly.