The Dark Truth About Nutritional Supplements

Americans love their nutritional supplements. With half of all Americans taking vitamins on a daily basis and two-thirds taking them at some point during the week, they’re a common dietary component of the lives of many Americans. Many take supplements hoping that they’ll improve some aspect of their health. With thousands of supplements available on the open market in an endless number of stores hinting on the bottle that they can help with an endless array of health issues, why wouldn’t consumers believe that they could better their health problems by simply popping a pill like they do with pharmaceuticals? After all, if big name stores are carrying them, they must be legitimate, right? 


What if these hopes were misguided and erroneous? What if the potential benefits of taking vitamins were vastly outweighed by their drawbacks? What if the supplement industry has been peddling unregulated products with bogus assertions that are far more harmful than they’ll ever admit? What if the pills you’re taking are fake or full of fake filler products?  

Emerging research and recent events that have arisen in the past several years are pointing to one startling conclusion: The vitamins that so many millions of Americans consume are far more harmful to their health than they may know. As the title of a recent research study on vitamins conducted by a group of doctors puts it, “Enough is enough: Stop wasting money on vitamin and mineral supplements."

With a few specific exceptions, there is no reason for people to consume any products from the nutritional supplement industry as the dangers far outweigh the potential benefits. While the industry may beg to differ, the evidence is clearly starting to paint a picture of a morally bankrupt industry that peddles products with zero oversight and a clear lack of benefit.    

Looking back, it can be argued that the current interest in the supposed benefits of vitamins in America emerged from the obsession that double Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling had with Vitamin C. As the Atlantic recounts, 

“In 1970, Pauling published Vitamin C and the Common Cold, urging the public to take 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C every day (about 50 times the recommended daily allowance). Pauling believed that the common cold would soon be a historical footnote. 'It will take decades to eradicate the common cold completely,' he wrote, 'but it can, I believe, be controlled entirely in the United States and some other countries within a few years. I look forward to witnessing this step toward a better world.' Pauling's book became an instant bestseller. Paperback versions were printed in 1971 and 1973, and an expanded edition titled Vitamin C, the Common Cold and the Flu, published three years later, promised to ward off a predicted swine flu pandemic. Sales of vitamin C doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. Drugstores couldn't keep up with demand. By the mid-1970s, 50 million Americans were following Pauling's advice. Vitamin manufacturers called it 'the Linus Pauling effect.'" 

Pauling also claimed cancer could be eradicated via vitamin C supplements, which would in turn extend the average human life span into the hundreds. Needless to say, various studies have proven his dubious claims wrong throughout the years. (See here, here, and here.)

Despite his quackery being proven wrong on numerous occasions and his health-related predictions never coming to fruition despite the increased consumption of vitamin C within America, his stature as a dual Nobel Prize winner helped lend legitimacy to his claims, despite their utter lunacy.  The damage had been done, his ramblings and publications helped plant the seed of the modern nutritional supplement industry that continues to grow and convince more Americans to needlessly take its supplements by the year.  After Pauling catalyzed the interest of vitamins within the general American population, the industry over the years grew into a multi-billion dollar industrial powerhouse with the political clout to match.  A powerful senator who has been a longtime financial and personal beneficiary and supporter of the industry is Utah’s Orrin Hatch.

Utah has a high concentration of companies affiliated with the nutritional supplement industry, with a region of Utah County being nicknamed the Silicon Valley of the nutritional supplement industry.  With the industry being his second biggest campaign contributor in recent years, they’ve certainly gotten a great return for their investment at the expense of America’s health. In 1994, Senator Hatch and his Democratic Senate colleague Tom Harkin, also a recipient of generous campaign contributions from the industry, collaborated on getting a bipartisan deregulation bill that came to be known as the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, or DSHEA, signed into law.   

In a nutshell, DSHEA essentially lets the industry sell whatever it wants as long as it doesn’t mention a specific disease by name, all without requiring any evidence or FDA approval to back it up. As Peter Cohen of Harvard Medical School described it, “Unlike prescription medications, supplements do not require premarketing approval before they reach store shelves. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, anything labeled as a dietary supplement is assumed to be safe until proven otherwise. The FDA is charged with the unenviable task of identifying and removing dangerous supplements only after they have caused harm.” 

Essentially, the industry bought Senator Hatch and his colleague in order to get them to weaken the regulatory powers of the FDA that could have forced the industry to prove its products do what they claim to do prior to reaching consumers. According to Senator Hatch’s owwebsite, he boasts that “According to the United Natural Products Alliance, the industry has grown from a $9 billion industry in 1994 when the bill passed to $35 billion in 2013 with a 7.5% annual compound growth. By 2017, national sales are expected to reach just under $50 billion.  In Utah, it is an almost $7 billion industry annually.”

All of this growth is in part due to the industry having nearly free rein to sell whatever it wants to the American people without having to worry about the FDA analyzing its products and claims beforehand.

Senator Hatch has also repeatedly thwarted numerous attempts to regulate the industry, including a prominent bill that surprisingly arose from his fellow GOP Senate colleague John McCain that would have required supplement manufacturers to register with the FDA and disclose their ingredients while giving the FDA the authority to recall unsafe supplements.

Not only is the industry rewarding Hatch, it is rewarding his friends and family, according to the New York Times:

“His family and friends have benefited, too, from links to the supplement industry. His son Scott Hatch is a longtime industry lobbyist in Washington, as are at least five of the senator’s former aides. Mr. Hatch’s grandson and son-in-law increase revenue at their chiropractic clinic near here by selling herbal and nutritional treatments, including $35 'thyroid dysfunction' injections and a weight-loss product, 'Slim and Sassy Metabolic Blend.' And Mr. Hatch’s former law partner owns Pharmics, a small nutritional supplement company in Salt Lake City.”   

If the loyalty of Senator Hatch to this dangerous industry weren’t enough, the industry has followed others participating in the revolving door by placing several members of its national lobby, the Natural Products Association, in the FDA in a clear conflict of interest. More specifically, “Before joining the F.D.A. in 2011, Dr. [Daniel] Fabricant was a top executive at an industry trade group, the Natural Products Association…Daniel Fabricant, who ran the agency’s division of dietary supplement programs from 2011 to 2014, had been a senior executive at that trade group, the Natural Products Association, which has spent millions of dollars lobbying to block new laws that would hold supplement makers to stricter standards. He left the F.D.A. last year and returned to the association as its chief executive. His current replacement at the F.D.A.’s supplement division also comes from the trade group…Shortly before Dr. Fabricant left the F.D.A. in 2014 to return to the association, the F.D.A. hired another official from the group, Cara Welch. She is now the acting director of the agency’s supplement division."

This type of tampering has led the FDA to admit on its own website that it’s essentially powerless to routinely analyze the contents of dietary supplements:

“In that FDA has limited resources to analyze the composition of food products, including dietary supplements, it focuses these resources first on public health emergencies and products that may have caused injury or illness. Enforcement priorities then go to products thought to be unsafe or fraudulent or in violation of the law. The remaining funds are used for routine monitoring of products pulled from store shelves or collected during inspections of manufacturing firms. The agency does not analyze dietary supplements before they are sold to consumers. The manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that the 'Supplement Facts' label and ingredient list are accurate, that the dietary ingredients are safe, and that the content matches the amount declared on the label. FDA does not have resources to analyze dietary supplements sent to the agency by consumers who want to know their content. Instead, consumers may contact the manufacturer or a commercial laboratory for an analysis of the content.”  

With both the FDA and Congress falling prey to the industry, it is clear the American population must become more aware of the dangers the industry poses to their health and push for action. With so many demonstrated potentially harmful effects, it’s more imperative to do so before the portion of the population taking supplements begins to rise even more. 

Clear Lack of Benefit

Numerous research studies have come out in the past several years that have failed to find any health benefits that are associated with the consumption of supplements. Several of the claims originating from Linus Pauling regarding vitamin C had numerous studies conducted on them to confirm their legitimacy, they all failed to hold up. One Oxford University study tracked 20,000 people for five years, half of which were given popular antioxidants vitamin C, E, and beta-carotene daily while the other half were given placebo pills. The study found that those taking the vitamins were just as likely to die from any cause over the period of the study as those taking placebos.  The supplements offered no protection against a heart attack, stroke, or cancer, no benefit was found for bone or eye health, the rates of asthma and respiratory diseases were the same in both groups, no neurologically beneficial benefits were found, and no protection against cataracts or osteoporosis was offered. The study also found that those taking the vitamins had a minor increase in the amount of bad cholesterol when compared to those taking placebos. The study authors concluded that buying supplements was a waste of time and recommended to spend that money on fruits and vegetables instead.  

Another study which reviewed 27 past clinical trials found no evidence that taking daily multivitamin and mineral supplements prevents or slows down the progress of cognitive decline or chronic diseases such as heart diseases or cancer. As reported by medical daily, “In 2006 and 2009, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality published two papers that both combed through massive amounts of collected data in an effort to evaluate the effectiveness of multivitamin supplements. The results? The pills were shown to do absolutely nothing to prevent cancer, heart disease, or any other cause of death. 

In another study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, French researchers enrolled over 8,000 volunteers in a six year experiment where subjects were administered either a multivitamin or a placebo. At the end of the experiments, those administered vitamins showed no improvement over the other group.”

In perhaps the greatest overview of research studies done on supplements so far, a paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine journal reviewed three trials of multivitamin supplements and 24 trials of single or paired vitamins that together cumulatively totaled over 400,000 participants. 

The study found that there wasn’t any evidence of a beneficial effect that supplements had on all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, or cancer.  In another study conducted on older women, multivitamin and individual vitamin supplements were found to be associated with an increased total mortality risk.  All of them except for calcium were associated with an increased risk of total mortality when compared to those not taking any, and the risk of increased mortality was found to have the highest association witiron supplements. Basically, older women were found to live longer by not taking vitamins other than calcium.  All of these studies are clearly indicating that one’s overall quality of life and risk of health problems won’t improve by taking nutritional supplements. 

Ill Health Effects

Several studies researching the relationship between supplements and cancer have emerged recently, with the results not being too kind to the industry. Several of the studies mentioned above noted that the risk of cancer wasn’t lowered in those taking supplements. (Read here, here, here, and here.)

One study found that taking vitamins in excess of the recommended dosage can increase the risk of certain cancers by 25%.  Another study found that there was limited evidence supporting any benefit from vitamin and mineral supplementation for the prevention of cancer or cardiovascular disease.  Some previously identified health benefits of fish oil are starting to falter under new research too.  Even worse, a study found a link between fish oil supplements and the risk of developing prostate cancer.  Selenium and vitamin E supplements have also been linked to a higher risk of developing prostate cancer in men. 

More striking, it appears that the two doubled the risk of high-grade prostrate cancer in some men when taken together. One study found that male smokers who took beta-carotene daily for 5-8 years had an 18% increased rate of lung cancer along with an 8% higher mortality rate when compared to male smokers who didn’t take them. Another study found that taking vitamin E did not only fail to help prevent cancer in patients with vascular disease or diabetes, but those who took it also had a higher risk of heart failure over a seven year period than the patients who took a placebo. A study conducted on mice with lung cancer found that giving them vitamin E and N-acetyl cysteine accelerated thprogression of their lung cancer. Even worse, Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Watson of double helix discovering fame is currently conducting research into the possibility that antioxidant-containing supplements may be hindering cancer treatments. This is because numerous cancer treatments use free radicals to kill tumor cells, which means that antioxidants could prevent them from doing their job. He claims his studies into this phenomenon are among his most important since his double helix days. These studies indicate that at best, vitamins are useless in preventing cancer, and at worst, they raise the chance of developing it. 

Antioxidants Revisited

The reason the studies on vitamin C, E, beta-carotene and others mentioned above are so striking is that they’re antioxidants of recent health fad craze. As can be seen in the studies just mentioned, the idea of the antioxidants found in supplements being universally beneficial for people has been coming under fire in recent research as well. One study wished to examine the intake of antioxidants and how they were related to the incidence of coronary heart disease. This is because the researchers noted that existing data hinted that vitamin E and beta-carotene have an inverse correlation with the incidence of coronary heart disease.  he study gave the two supplements to people who already had coronary heart disease in a double blind, placebo-controlled study over the course of several years. 

Not only did the risk of having a major coronary event not lower in those taking the supplements, but also the risk of fatal coronary heart disease increased in the groups that received either beta-carotene or a combo of both.  As mentioned earlier, selenium and vitamin E supplements have been linked to a higher risk of developing prostate cancer in men.  In another study, Australian doctors gave 1,900 pregnant women either Vitamin C and E supplements or a placebo to see whether the vitamins would lower the risk of developing high blood pressure during pregnancy.  They found that the vitamin group had developed a slightly higher rate of developing high blood pressure compared to the placebo group. In another study, Danish researchers found that people who took three antioxidants, beta-carotene, Vitamin E, and high doses of vitamin A tended to have an increased risk of death.  These studies indicate that antioxidants obtained via supplement form may not be as healthy as once believed. This research indicates that obtaining nutrients through a healthy diet is superior when it comes to health than if they’re obtained via vitamin supplements.  

Vitamin D

Oh, and about that vitamin D deficiency three-quarters of the US population has?  Half of all US adults take vitamin D supplements, and an analysis of over 450 studies found that “The absence of an effect of vitamin D supplementation on disease occurrence, severity, and clinical course leads to the hypothesis that variations [in vitamin D levels] would essentially be a result, and not a cause, of ill health.”  Basically, low vitamin D levels are a result of being in a poor state of health, not the cause of it. Popping vitamin D supplements while failing to concurrently implement a complete overhaul in ones lifestyle is pointless, as the study also found, “associations between 25(OH)D and health disorders … are not causal. Low 25(OH)D [vitamin D] could be the result of inflammatory processes involved in disease.”  

Long story short, taking vitamin D supplements are a waste of time. Having low vitamin D levels is indicative of a poor lifestyle, and points to change being necessary in your life. Besides, if you want to help increase your vitamin D levels while improving your lifestyle, all you need to do is get some sunlight.

Overdosage

Another industry-wide problem is that many of the manufacturers place far more than the recommended daily dosage of vitamins into their products. This can be detrimental, as Norman Hord, an associate professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University describes it, "excesses of all nutrients, from water, to iron, to water-soluble B vitamins, can potentially cause toxicities. People who take vitamins and minerals in amounts above the established upper limits of the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) may harm tissues where the vitamin is stored in their body…that’s why you shouldn’t take more than the recommended amount.”  A study mentioned above regarding certain supplements increasing cancer risk by 25% if they were taken in excess of their recommended dose.  This can be particularly dangerous for youth who take vitamin supplements meant for children.  

A study was conducted on nearly 200 dietary supplements that were marketed for children in order to determine the amount of vitamins the kids would consume if they followed the instructions on the bottle.  It was found that most of the products had vitamin levels higher than those recommended for kids within a single day.  The amounts ranged from 300%-900% depending upon the vitamin in question.  The potential for excess vitamin toxicity to cause damage to children is higher than in adults due to their frailer, still developing bodies.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has also weighed in on the matter, concluding that children shouldn’t generally need to take vitamins, “The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says parents should speak with their pediatricians about whether their young child may need to take supplements. Toddlers who eat a balanced diet should be getting adequate levels of most vitamins and so should not need supplements, the AAP says. And very high doses of some vitamins, such as vitamin A, may even pose risks because they can accumulate in the body, the AAP says.  But some children may need supplements if, for instance, they have selective eating habits, and therefore don’t get adequate levels of vitamins through food, the AAP says.”  This mostly negates the need for parents to buy their kids vitamin supplements. 

Fake Products

So let’s say despite learning about the corruption that allows the industry to sell its unregulated products to the public regardless of what ill effects may emerge from it, you still decide that the potential benefits of vitamins you’ve heard about for years outweigh the drawbacks, so you still proceed to go on and purchase some supplements.  Another problem now is that the product you are buying is likely to not be what it claims to be.  An investigation conducted by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman earlier this year found that many store-brand herbal supplements are not what the label says they are.  Out of the supplements tested from stores including GNC, Target, Wal-Mart, and Walgreens, only 21% of the supplements contained DNA from the plants listed on the labels, many of them were contaminated with other substances. Wal-Mart was the worst offender with only 4% of its products containing DNA from the plants listed on the labels.  The results were distressing enough that they prompted a group of 14 state attorney generals to ask congress to launch an inquiry into the industry.  If that weren’t bad enough, the results of a separate Canadian research study into the industry were just as distressing.  The study utilized DNA barcoding to verify the authenticity of 44 supplement products from 12 different companies.  The results were dismal

One third of the products demonstrated outright ingredient substitution, in that no traces of the plants advertised on the bottle were found while other plants and filler ingredients instead replaced them.  Many contained filler ingredients that weren’t listed on the bottle, including rice, soybean, and wheat.  All in all, the study concluded that most of the herbal products tested were of poor quality.  30/44 had product substitution, and only 2/12 companies had products without any substitution, contamination, or fillers.  Unfortunately, the study didn’t name the companies selling pure supplements, so we aren’t currently aware of which companies are the honest ones.  As if these findings weren’t bad enough, the US GAO tested 40 herbal dietary supplements for any potential contaminants.  Trace amounts of lead were found in 37 of them, 32 had mercury, 28 had cadmium, 21 had arsenic, and 18 had residues from at least one pesticide.  Though the amounts were trace, it indicates a lack of quality control on part of the industry with regards to keeping their products clean. 

Given the history of the how the supplement industry came about, the way they used their financial power to prevent any government oversight of their industry, the lack of quality control of the products they sell, the clear lack of any health benefit from taking their products along with the averse affects that can arise from taking them, it’s clear that any potential benefits that may exist from taking them are dwarfed by the drawbacks.  All in all, the American public needs to re-examine their relationship with the industry.  It’s more important for the public to re-allocate their hard earned money on ensuring that they have daily access to a healthier diet while finding ways to be more active to improve their health rather than hope these products are a magical cure-all for their health problems.  As poor diet is responsible for more disease worldwide than smoking, alcohol, and physical activity combined, it would be wise to heed the advice of the doctors who recommended spending money on a healthier diet in lieu of supplements.   

With 35% of Americans have gone a week without eating a single fruit or vegetable, it’s clear that consuming a healthy diet should be a higher priority for the many supplement consumers to ensure that they obtain their nutrients in a natural, proper manner.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.