NEW YORK, United States, Thursday May 19, 2016 – A joint investigation by the New York Times and the PBS Frontline programme has raised concerns about the quality and safety of vitamins and dietary supplements.
The report, aired earlier this week, asked leading clinicians and researchers for their assessment of whether products actually did consumers any good.
On the contrary, it found that in the multi-billion-dollar industry, some supplements and vitamins could actually be harmful.
According to paediatrician Paul Offit, from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: “We love the notion of a magic pill. It’s something that makes it all better. It’s just too seductive.”
Dr Offit went on to question why people were taking supplements and vitamins in the first place.
“You need vitamins to live. The question is, do you get enough in food? And I think the answer to that question is yes,” he said.
“Then you look on the back [of vitamin and supplement bottles] and you find that a number of these vitamins are contained in amounts that are much greater than the recommended daily allowance (RDA). Now there are studies done showing if you take a mega vitamin, you actually can hurt yourself.”
“You actually can increase your risk of cancer, increase your risk of heart disease. I think few people know the risks they’re taking. If you take large quantities of Vitamin E as a supplement, you clearly and definitively increase your risk of prostate cancer,” he added. “And in a better world, in a regulated world, were Vitamin E a regulated product, it should have a black-box warning on it that says just that.”
Extra vitamins = can be harmful. Anything in excess has problems #4corners
— Ashlea Broomfield (@AshBroomie) May 16, 2016
He added pills that contained 1,000mg Vitamin C went “against what nature intends” as people had to eat eight rockmelons to make up that amount.
“It’s a dangerous thing to do,” Dr Offit said.
The Frontline report also examined the science surrounding fish oil and vitamin D.
Fish oil has been widely taken as a supplement in the belief it could prevent heart attacks and cardiovascular disease.
But after compiling the best studies on fish oil from the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, epidemiologist Andrew Grey, from the University of Auckland, disagreed.
“People who are advised to do that, or are doing it, are wasting their time and their money,” Dr Grey said.
Dr Preston Mason, from Harvard Medical School, went further, saying that the process of making fish oil tablets put the main ingredient at risk of going rancid when exposed to oxygen.
Oxidised oil contains oxidised lipids and could be harmful.
— 7 News Sydney (@7NewsSydney) May 16, 2016
“Oxidized lipid triggers inflammatory responses within our body, particularly in our cells,” Dr Mason said.
“And if we ingest oxidized lipid, we can trigger these inflammatory changes that can lead to things like cardiovascular disease.”
One study of fish oil supplements done in New Zealand found 83 percent of fish oils tested had high levels of oxidation and failed to meet the supplement industry’s standards.
And when it came to vitamin D, Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Dr JoAnn Manson told PBS Frontline that people were “taking too much.”
“The [US] Institute of Medicine recommended avoiding getting above 4,000 IUs daily because that could be associated with adverse events – calcium in the urine, which can be associated with kidney stones, high blood calcium, calcium in the arteries, vascular calcification, as well as soft tissue calcification,” she said.
“And there are now studies that show a U-shaped curve that those who have high as well as low blood levels of Vitamin D have higher risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as all-cause mortality.”
Meanwhile, Dr Herbert Bonkovsky, an investigator with a liver injury network funded by the US National Institutes of Health, said he was concerned about the harm some supplements caused.
“This (supplements) has been sort of the fastest-growing kind of liver injury that we’re observing in the drug-induced liver injury network,” he said.
“The frequency with which we see this has roughly tripled in the past 10 years.”
In Hawaii in 2013, there was an outbreak of liver problems which health officials later linked to a diet and workout supplement called OxyElite Pro, which used a compound called aegeline.
“Aegeline is a normal component of the Bael tree, and it’s been used as a natural product by naturopathic healers for centuries, usually fairly safely,” Dr Bonkovsky said.
“But they didn’t use Bael tree extract. They bought aegeline from a Chinese drug company that made aegeline, at least, the company claimed it was aegeline, and within a few months, they began to observe patients with liver failure.”
— FRONTLINE (@frontlinepbs) January 20, 2016
The US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has since linked OxyElite to more than 70 cases of liver damage. The company has denied any responsibility.
Many other products are not what they claim.
In 2010, gynaecologist David Baker investigated the herb black cohosh, commonly recommended to women to treat symptoms of menopause.
He bought dozens of brands of the herb and started testing the DNA.
“Thirty percent had no black cohosh. And in the samples that we found, we could identify the other plants as well, and they were from ornamental plants from China,” Dr Baker said.
Dr Baker and his colleagues published the result in an academic journal, but it did not get much attention, so they kept testing, with similar disturbing results.
“Upwards of 15 percent of supplements like saw palmetto are not saw palmetto. Supplements like devil’s claw, 100 percent are not devil’s claw or [are] contaminated with some other problem,” he said.
“What I see in this is that there are those who take the easy way out, the fraudulent way, and want to put something in the bottle that’s cheap and readily available. And buyer beware.”
In the early 1990s, head of the FDA David Kessler promised tougher regulations for supplements, in particular, demanding that health claims be backed by scientific evidence. He met with tough resistance.
“The industry went bonkers. Everything exploded. I mean, I’ve taken on some of the hardest regulatory issues. I did tobacco. Tobacco looked easy compared to dietary supplements,” Kessler said.
Then the FDA began getting complaints about a popular weight loss supplement containing an ingredient called ephedra.
Manufacturers fought the FDA for more than a decade, until a young major league baseball player died after taking the ingredient.
By then, more than 160 deaths had been linked to the supplement.
In the US, government agencies do not approve vitamins and supplements before allowing them onto the market.
“The FDA does not do any review of dietary supplements before they come onto the market, and I think that all consumers need to understand this,” FDA acting commissioner Stephen Ostroff said.