Here is a thing you might not have known: bombing your body with antioxidants is almost certainly not good. This is not the dominant narrative in the year 2012; “good source of antioxidants” is a food/nutrition industry mantra. Superfoods, innit. Free radicals are the root of all your body’s evil and by flooding yourself with purifying antioxidants, you can cure all that will ever ail you. It will be great and taste great and maybe you’ll even have better sex. This has been the plot for as long as I can remember (I’m 31). I don’t recall once hearing in any sort of popular media anything all that much more nuanced, let alone suggesting that it might be altogether wrong. No matter that good science has for quite some time been suggesting otherwise.
This might be true for many vitamin supplements, that they’re ineffective if not outright unhealthy, and not just limited to antioxidants. It is certainly true for some. I use antioxidants as an example because, one, they seem to the most brutally inescapable of the supplement mantras and, two, because the evidence is so damning and even a bit horrifying. Wait, evidence? Damning? What? Yeah, actually. Pretty much all of it. A 1996 study on beta-cartene was even terminated early because antioxidant supplementation was actually making cancer rates higher in participants.
Understand that the supplement industry is just another massive industry — to the tune of $30 billion — and behaves as such (with considerable help from the alt-medicine world and science-blind media). You probably don’t get leaflets about fracking’s effects on groundwater with your natural gas bill either. The supplement industry isn’t actually very big on studying whether or not their products are likely to kill you — quality long-term studies are the exception in this world, leaving the National Institutes of Health to do a lot of catch-up. The supplement industry is then helped along by (in the U.S.) the FDA, which takes a relatively hands-off approach to regulation.
But these things do in fact get studied and the results are out there, whether or not the industry and media reports on them. A new commentary out today in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute weighs the benefits and risks associated with supplements and argues that, unless you’re that rare person in the first-world with a nutritional deficiency, taking bonus amounts of anything isn’t doing you any good. A great many studies have been out and out halted because it became apparent that nothing good was happening; more studies have found that supplements are making things worse. That beta-carotene trial mentioned above found a 39-percent increase in lung cancers (among those already at risk) with supplements; please note that the lifetime risk for cigarette smokers in getting lung cancer is “only” about 7-percent.
Selenium also fared pretty badly, boosting skin cancer rates by 17 to 25-percent, depending on the variety of cancer. A study done on alpha-Tocopherol, the active stuff in vitamin E, found prostate cancer rates boosted by 17-percent. Meanwhile, folic acid in excess has been found to increase chances for colorectal tumors, prostate cancer, and breast cancer. Vitamin D doesn’t appear to increase cancer risk — instead it just does nothing — while calcium might still have some hope of doing actual good things in terms of lowering cancer prevalence. Maybe.
“Although dietary supplements have been in widespread use in the United States for many years and are generally assumed to be safe, understanding of their toxicity is actually incomplete,” the commentary reads. “The basic sales pitch is that if a little of a nutrient is good, then a lot must be better. This is not simply a matter of economic exploitation in the marketplace; the safety of dietary supplements is a valid public health issue.” In other words, not only are you getting ripped off, you’re being put in danger by the supplement industry, with some help from misguided common sense. (Apple a day? How ’bout 50 apples a day. Suck on that cancer!)
Undoubtedly, use is driven by a common belief that supplements can improve health and protect against disease, and that at worst, they are harmless. However, the assumption that any dietary supplement is safe under all circumstances and in all quantities is no longer empirically reasonable. Believers in supplements are sometimes quick to discredit caution over supplement use, as they suggest that the tendency of mainstream science to ignore nonconventional evidence is tainted or that mainstream science is somehow corrupted by its link to a medical–industrial complex that seeks to protect profits rather than prevent disease. Results of a recent survey showed that most US supplement users report that they would continue to use supplements even if scientific evidence found them to be ineffective or if the FDA specifically deemed them ineffective.
What’s that, a large percentage of Americans ignoring good science in favor of sly marketing (or fake counterculture) and skewed intuition? See also: global warming. Though, in fairness, the commentary is careful to note that much more research is needed on supplements, as is actual regulation. Currently supplements are regulated in an ad hoc grey area between foods and drugs (cigarettes, meanwhile, are drugs). It’s been slow going getting regulation much past that point thanks to industry push-back and politician collusion. Alt-medicine people should be thrilled to learn that one of their biggest boosters is notable awesome human Orrin Hatch.
And I wonder what the correct way to approach the public is with something like this, or with global warming for that matter. But this in particular because so many of my peers love alt-medicine and fuck mainstream medicine etc. My tone here is snarky as all get out, which is a default in talking about people that are in love with bad science. I dunno. If maybe you’re in some way cool band or you’re Louie CK, you should write a song or skit or something about this. Thanks.
- Skeptic Hat: Gluten Probably Isn’t Making You Sick
- It’s Time For A New Food Movement, and That’s Bad News For Paleos
Reach this writer at email@example.com.