This first-person story — and its headline — claim to present new evidence to end any question about the life-saving, disease-preventing value of population-wide use of megadose multivitamin supplements. The second half of this 700-plus-word piece goes on to offer tips for purchasing supplements that are “high quality” brands, and warning consumers to avoid “cheaper” pills that might skimp on benefits or contain harmful ingredients. These “higher-quality” brands are conveniently available on the author’s linked website, making this story little more than an ad in the guise of news. Financial conflicts aside, the story’s claims about vitamin benefits are overstated and deceptive opinions based on cherry-picked studies, and the research described as “new” was actually published in 2012. More recent recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, based on a systematic review of all available clinical trials, conclude that there is “inadequate evidence to assess the balance of benefits and harms of supplements of single or paired vitamins, multivitamins, or minerals to prevent CVD or cancer.”
Although good science tells us that taking a daily multivitamin is unlikely to be helpful, articles such as this one continue to confuse consumers. The multi-billion dollar supplement industry exploits that confusion to sell more products.
Although the article warns consumers away from “cheaper” products, it fails to disclose the costs of the suggested supplements. A back of the envelope calculation and a visit to a couple of national brand websites suggest the cost can run to $50 to $100 a month or more.
The story includes claims of a number of benefits that are based mainly on the findings of the Physicians Health Study II (PHS II), a multivitamin supplement trial that involved middle-aged men. There are a number of problems with the way the story describes these results:
The article is dismissive about reports of any potential harms of supplementation in otherwise healthy people, except to note that when people buy supplements, they would do well to “avoid toxic fillers” consisting of “cheap additives.” In other words, no worries if you buy the expensive brands. In fact, there are studies describing harmful effects of supplements, particularly doses that are many times the recommended daily requirement suggested by ethical nutritionists and scientific organizations. The story also suggests that the consumer “look for” specific formulations of vitamins, including beta carotene — a supplement which is known to increase cancer risk among smokers in high quality studies.
The story goes the extra mile to describe the possible benefits of supplements, and to discuss the value of one of the studies as randomized and controlled. But it does not say a word about the limitations of the analyses cited in the article, or balance the piece with data from other high-quality studies. After systematically reviewing all available trials of reasonably good quality on vitamin supplementation, a team of experts from the US Preventive Services Task Force concluded that “current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of multivitamins for the prevention of cardiovascular disease or cancer.” This story badly needed this perspective.
This story hypes the benefits of vitamins for just about everything. To read this article is to believe that most of us (actually the article says “everyone”) had better run right to the vitamin supplement aisle or have only ourselves to blame for failing to “thrive,” as well as for cancer, heart disease, dementia and other diseases. There are indeed people who have actual nutritional deficiencies, owing to illness and poverty, for example. But to suggest that virtually everyone is in urgent need of supplements is over the top.
The story is essentially one doctor’s pitch for consumers to buy her personalized line of supplements. We address the story’s many ethical challenges in this blog post.
The story never mentions eating fresh, healthier foods or other lifestyle modifications as alternatives to supplements in preventing disease (e.g. exercise, weight loss, or cancer screening). Further, the story inexplicably dismisses generic low-dose vitamins as an inadequate method of attaining health benefits. In fact, the best evidence available favors these low-dose vitamins — not the high doses favored by the author.
The availability of vitamin supplements is not in question.
The headline and article suggest that the debate about the value of supplements is now over, and that the information cited in the piece is all new and previously unreported. Neither is the case. The supposedly “new” study that the story cites as appearing in the January 2015 edition of the journal Postgraduate Medicine was actually published in JAMA in October, 2012. The Postgraduate Medicine article is merely a review of that and other studies. The story doesn’t acknowledge the existence of more recent and comprehensive analyses of the evidence on vitamin supplements.
Although there are no independent sources, the story does cite two different studies related to vitamins, suggesting it wasn’t based entirely on a press release.