In 2012, a consumer product review magazine published an alarmist article on the supposed “dangers” of dietary supplements that carried the dire warning: “Don't assume they're safe because they're 'all natural.' ” A 2013 commentary in the Annals of Internal Medicine was equally clueless in its widely misreported anti-multivitamin assertions.
In both of these cases—then, and in much of the mainstream media coverage since then—what was ignored was the fact that, in 2002, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) completely reversed its traditional anti-vitamin position with the publication of two landmark scientific review articles.
These exhaustive reviews were based on an analysis of 30 years of scientific studies that looked at vitamins and chronic disease. Both reviews concluded by recommending daily multivitamin supplementation for all adults.
In many cases, the well-established and profound benefits of high-quality multivitamins barely make it through the media noise.
We counter these myths with the facts:
Fact: With 3,000 deaths and 128,000 hospitalizations a year from food poisoning, it is clear where our agencies need to be directing their efforts. Wouldn’t we be better served by an exposé on the dangers of properly prescribed pharmaceuticals, which injure over 1 million and kill over 100,00 Americans each year in hospitals alone. The subtitle on a prescription drugs-focused article could read: “Don’t assume they’re safe because they’re FDA-approved.”
The bottom line is that food supplements are inherently benign while pharmaceuticals are inherently dangerous. With the millions of supplements sold and safely used every year, dietary supplements have a consumer safety record truly worthy of envy.
Since the 1994 passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has had the authority to eliminate any dietary supplement from the market if the agency shows that it presents "a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury" or that it contains "a poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health."
The FDA can, in fact, act immediately against any product that poses an "imminent hazard to public health or safety." With the Food Safety Modernization Act’s passage in 2011, the FDA’s mandatory recall authority was actually affirmed and broadened.
While life is not risk-free, the chance of being struck by lightning is much greater than is the likelihood of experiencing any serious issue with supplements.
Fact: Supplements are a class of food, not drugs, so pharmaceuticals pretending to be supplements is a drug-adulteration problem best managed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), something which has been supported by consumer and industry groups since 2010. It’s not a dietary supplement problem.
Fact: Aside from only a few exceptions (e.g., iron, selenium, zinc and vitamin A), even with the dosages found in high-potency supplements there is a vast window of safety on supplements of several hundred percent. In point of fact, most supplements are so safe that no upper limit can even be established. What we instead have to worry about are the over 13,000 truly dangerous prescription drugs on the market with side effects we know about.
Fact: True, but since dietary supplements are by nature benign with a margin of safety a mile wide, there is really nothing to warn consumers about. That aside, many products carry cautions relating to consumption by children and pregnant/breastfeeding women, but this is primarily to protect companies from legal actions stemming from gross misuse of products.
Fact: Of course the same can be said for prescription pharmaceuticals. In any case, even if they did cure things, supplement manufacturers wouldn’t be allowed to tell consumers about it. Regardless, supplements are complements to the diet not substitutes for healthy food and physical activity.
Fact: The American Heart Association recommends that we consume a diet rich in marine-based omega-3s, and the U.S. government has authorized health claims for vitamin D and calcium supplementation. In 2005, Harvard researchers estimated that low dietary consumption of omega-3s in the U.S. diet accounted for 72,000 to 96,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease. At the end of the day, there have been numerous animal studies showing direct cancer prevention with omega-3s and epidemiological studies associating high levels of dietary omega-3s with reduced rates of cancer.
Fact: Most dietary ingredients are analogues of natural extracts. Food technologists aren’t standing around with wooden mallets, mortars and pestles. The are only one or two cases in which a true natural analogue is not as effective as a natural source nutrient, such as with vitamin E.
Fact: But we need drugs, apparently? For decades the USDA has proven that most of us don’t get anywhere near an even basic level of vitamins and minerals from the standard American diet, so it would be a rare person indeed who would not stand to benefit from a multivitamin/multimineral supplement.
Aside from this, due to soil erosion, the massive growth of genetically engineered land, the elimination of thousands of ancestral (heirloom) plant species, and widespread pesticide use, we have soil that has at least 85% less minerals than it did 100 years ago and we have processed foods stripped of live enzymes, B vitamins and many other vital nutrients—so even if you are among the 10% of Americans who try to consume the bare-bone nutritional levels prescribed by the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs), it is today virtually impossible for North Americans to get enough vitamins and minerals from a standard American diet.
It is unfortunate to see such misinformation out there about safe, well-regulated and effective dietary supplements. These scare tactics will only succeed in making consumers wrongly distrust vitamins and drive even more Americans away from responsible self-care into the welcoming arms of drug-happy conventional medicine.
That’s what we call dangerous.
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