It’s the big story this morning all over the British papers – the new killer in our midst – vitamin pills.
Today, a new Cochrane review tells us that guzzling antioxidant vitamin pills ‘do us no good and may be harmful’. The Independent tell us that,
We swallow them by the bucketload at great expense but there is no evidence vitamin supplements do us any good, and they may even be doing us harm, scientists have concluded. In a blow to the multimillion pound dietary supplement industry, a review of 67 randomised trials of vitamin pills has found that far from prolonging life, they may actually shorten it.
This conclusion was the result of a meta-analysis of 232,000 people and confirms earlier findings that taking certain vitamins in high doses may kill us earlier rather than do us good.
The Scotsman quotes the researchers,
Goran Bjelakovic, a visiting researcher who carried out the review at Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark, added: “We could find no evidence to support taking antioxidant supplements to reduce the risk of dying earlier.” If anything, people given the antioxidants beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E showed increased rates of mortality.””The bottom line is that current evidence does not support the use of antioxidant supplements in the general healthy population or in patients with certain diseases.”
The Herald tells us that “some popular pills might kill you.”
The Daily Telegraph leads with the story in its front page. Vitamin pills are no substitute for healthy diet,
[the researchers] warn healthy people who take antioxidant supplements, including vitamins A and E, to try to keep diseases such as cancer at bay that they are interfering with their natural body defences and may be increasing their risk of an early death by up to 16 per cent.
Not surprisingly the food pill pushers have reacted angrily.
In the Daily Mail we learn that,
Pamela Mason, of the industry-backed Health Supplements Information Service, said: ‘Antioxidant vitamins, like any other vitamins, were never intended for the prevention of chronic disease and mortality.
‘They are intended for health maintenance on the basis of their various physiological roles in the body and in the case of antioxidant vitamins, this does, in appropriate amounts, include a protective antioxidant effect in the body’s tissues.
So, the vitamin industry has been telling us that their pills are not to prevent disease and death? That is news. But somehow without preventing disease and death they assist ‘health maintenance’? Does that mean I could die but still be in ‘optimum health’?
Patrick Holford, vitamin pill entrepreneur responds.
But Patrick Holford, a nutritionist who has formulated some [sic] supplements for the firm Biocare, said the Cochrane review was a “stitch-up”. He added: “Antioxidants are not meant to be magic bullets and should not be expected to undo a lifetime of unhealthy habits. But used properly, in combination with eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise and not smoking, antioxidant supplements can play an important role in maintaining and promoting overall health.”
In the Daily Mail, Holford is reported as saying,
there is a campaign by the medical establishment to discredit their products and their role in optimising health.
Mr Holford said the review was ‘a stitch-up’ because all the studies were chosen strictly for reducing mortality, and not for the many advantages reported in other studies.
The quackometer would like see his evidence for any of his remarks. Just why a secretive cabal of the ‘medical establishment’ wants to discredit vitamin pills is not explained. It is paranoia and conspiratorial thinking. And isn’t it a perfectly legitimate exercise to ask if chomping pills allows us to live longer? What is Holford saying? That we might lives shorter lives while scoffing his wares, but at least we will be in ‘optimum health’?
But there may well be good reasons to try to discredit vitamin pill salespeople like Holford. Guzzling pills has more insidious effects that a possible reduction in lifespan. Vitamin pills are seen as a shortcut to health – a quick fix to make up for shortcomings or excesses elsewhere. Spending a fortune on pills and focusing on supplementation means that the importance of good diet is marginalised. The quackometer has long supported the view that we should ‘eat food’.
What is somewhat frustrating about all of this is that the original Cochrane paper is not yet up for reading on their web site. All we have is press reports from press releases. This has not stopped Patrick Holford reviewing and rubbishing the work on his web site.
I am sure we get a detailed response from HolfordWatch in due course.
9am : The paper is now available here.
Listen to the Victoria Derbyshire show on BBC Radio 5 live where Mr Holford transforms himself into an industry spokesman.