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Vitamin D, The Surprise Powerhouse: Wonder pill. Really.

Rating

4 Star

Vitamin D, The Surprise Powerhouse: Wonder pill. Really.

Our Review Summary

This was a carefully reseached piece about vitamin D, following a scientific workshop on the subject. It was overzealous in describing purported benefits but did call for caution. The scientists quoted are all leaders in the field. The article would have been much stronger if it had not had so much hyperbole (“Wonder Pill. Really.” in the headline?) and was better organized. It should also have included information about potential harm and cost.

While it is true that by its very definition as a vitamin, vitamin D is a substance required by the body for optimal function, the article could have done a cleaner job of separating demonstrated benefits of vitamin D from some of the hyperbole. Educating about this vitamin, and highlighting some of the reasons why many people don’t have adequate vitamin D levels would have resulted in a more informative, balanced piece. It would have given the reader a frame work for thinking about what their own levels might be and what that means to them in terms of disease risk.

The story comes close to disease-mongering at several points. At the end of the article, a physician says that at his osteoporosis clinic, they “just assume that every patient is [vitamin D] deficient”. It also quotes a recent review as stating that vitamin D deficiency is “a largely unrecognized epidemic in many populations worldwide.” But the article also tempers some of the “excitement” about vitamin D by saying “Much of vitamin D’s potential is still just that: potential.” And the story included a section labeled “a call for caution” with a quote, “Too many people expect nutrients to work like drugs…That kind of approach is likely to lead to disappointment.”

Overall, the number of sources and perspectives was excellent, as was the citation of several studies.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There was no comparison of the cost of foods with and without vitamin D supplementation, or for the amount of foods naturally rich in vitamin D needed to obtain adequate levels, or for the cost of vitamin D supplements.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

Most of the potential benefits from adequate vitamin D levels are not quantified. The story does present an estimate that 45% of deadly digestive system cancers could be reduced with extra daily vitamin D intake, but this is an opinion rather than an actually demonstrated benefit of treatment. The 80% reduction in diabetes in Finnish one year olds given vitamin D supplements does not provide sufficient context. (This was prevention of type I diabetes. The Finnish population has a higher prevalence of this disease compared to surrounding populations.)

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

While there is a quote in the article stating that “it’s not especially easy for consumers to add large amounts of vitamin D to their diets,” the article also mentions that vitamin D can be purchased as an individual supplement. Although it is not possible to overdose on vitamin D just from sunlight exposure, excess consumption of vitamin D can cause loss of appetite, weakness, kidney stones, heart problems and even death. These were not mentioned in the article.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

The evidence presented comes from retrospective studies showing that people with different conditions (e.g. those dying from cancer, people with unexplained pain, or those with osteoporosis) are commonly found to have lower vitamin D intake or levels than others. The article did not elucidate that while these are interesting observations, they are not the same as data showing that increasing vitamin D intake alters the risk of developing these conditions. Including an estimate that “an extra 1,500 International Units of vitamin D each day could reduce the risk of deadly cancers of the digestive system by 45%” is merely an estimate and not a documented fact. But the story does give citations of several studies. And it does state that scientists don’t always find what they think they will find, calling for caution and citing the stories of Vitamin E, beta carotene, and Women’s Health Initiative results from vitamin C and calcium. So we’ll give the story a satisfactory score, with some hesitation.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story comes close to disease-mongering at several points. At the end of the article, a physician says that at his osteoporosis clinic, they “just assume that every patient is [vitamin D] deficient”. It also quotes a recent review as stating that vitamin D deficiency is “a largely unrecognized epidemic in many populations worldwide.” But the article also tempers some of the “excitement” about vitamin D by saying “Much of vitamin D’s potential is still just that: potential.” And the story included a section labeled “a call for caution” with a quote, “Too many people expect nutrients to work like drugs…That kind of approach is likely to lead to disappointment.” We’re wavering on this score, but will give the story the benefit of the doubt.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

Quotes from a number of individuals who were involved in the 13th Vitamin D Workshop, held on April 26, 2006, were included in this story, as well as a quote with a broader prospective from someone involved in crafting the current dietary guidelines for vitamin D. The number of sources and perspectives was excellent.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The article mentions several ways for a person to increase their vitamin D intake (see above).

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The article included information about the body’s ability to synthesize vitamin D with exposure to sunlight containing UVB, or from foods rich in vitamin D, foods commonly supplemented with vitamin D, and vitamin D supplements.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

Vitamin D is accurately referred to in the article as not a new miracle drug, but a common nutrient and the “sunshine vitamin.”

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

There is no evidence that this story relied solely or largely on a news release.

Total Score: 7 of 10 Satisfactory

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