Dr Paul Offit is one of the most public voices of the pro-science, pro-vaccine community. He is the author of numerous scientific articles and popular books. Of course, he is vilified by the anti-vaccine people, who desperately cling to anything to shore up their belief system.
Today he has in The Guardian UK titled Vitamins: stop taking the pills. Here are some excerpts:
The problem with most vitamins is that they aren’t made inside the body; they’re available only in foods or supplements. So the question isn’t, “Do people need vitamins?” They do. The real questions are: “How much do they need?” and “Do they get enough in foods?” Nutrition experts and vitamin manufacturers are split on the answers to these questions. Nutrition experts argue that all people need is the recommended daily allowance (RDA), typically found in a routine diet. Industry representatives argue that foods don’t contain enough vitamins and that larger quantities are needed.
In other words, the people selling manufacturers and sellers of vitamin supplements recommend that you need them. Just ask any naturopath, they’ll be happy to sell you many supplements from their shop.
In October 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn’t. Two days later, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer.
These findings weren’t new. Seven previous studies had already shown that, for certain groups, some vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease, and shortened lives.
Linus Pauling is the only person to win two unshared Nobel Prizes: Chemistry in 1930, and Peace in 1960. However, he is most often remembered as the person who sold the world on the magic of Vitamin C.
Scientists weren’t as enthusiastic. In December 1942, about 30 years before Pauling published his first book, Donald Cowan, Harold Diehl and Abe Baker, from the University of Minnesota, published a paper in theJournal of the American Medical Association entitled Vitamins For The Prevention Of Colds. The authors concluded: “Under the conditions of this controlled study, in which 980 colds were treated… there is no indication that vitamin C alone, an antihistamine alone, or vitamin C plus an antihistamine have any important effect on the duration or severity of infections of the upper respiratory tract.”
Studies since then have arrived at much the same conclusions, yet still vitamin sales have not faltered. But Pauling and his supporters didn’t stop at the common cold.
Next, he claimed that vitamin C, when taken with massive doses of vitamin A (25,000 international units) and vitamin E (400 to 1,600 IU), as well as selenium (a basic element) and beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A), could do more than just prevent colds: they could treat cancer, along with virtually every disease known to man. Pauling claimed that vitamins and supplements could cure heart disease, mental illness, pneumonia, hepatitis, polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, chickenpox, meningitis, shingles, fever blisters, cold sores, canker sores, warts, ageing, allergies, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, retinal detachment, strokes, ulcers, shock, typhoid fever, tetanus, dysentery, whooping cough, leprosy, hay fever, burns, fractures, wounds, heat prostration, altitude sickness, radiation poisoning, glaucoma, kidney failure, influenza, bladder ailments, stress, rabies and snake bites. When the Aids virus entered the US in the 1970s, Pauling claimed vitamins could treat that, too.
Linus Pauling has gone from being one of the 20th centuries great scientists and humanitarians to one of its greatest quacks.
Offit goes on to itemize a number of studies on vitamin and disease, some of which were stopped early because of the increased complications of those taking vitamins. The effect of this science on sales is remarkable.
But studies haven’t hurt sales. In 2010, the vitamin industry grossed $28bn, up 4.4% on the year before. “The thing to do with [these reports] is just ride them out,” said Joseph Fortunato, chief executive of GNC, the largest chain of vitamin, mineral and supplement stores in the US. “We see no impact on our business.”
Offit goes on to talk about anti-oxidents and a number of other CAM fantasies that are popular. Some are harmless, some are harmful, but nearly all are ineffective.
This article was edited for the Guardian from Offit’s latest book, Killing Us Softly: The Sense And Nonsense Of Alternative Medicine