Vitamin Supplements Dangerous But Government Can’t Tell You

Scientists have known for years that large quantities of supplemental vitamins can be quite harmful. Yet, the FDA is prohibited by law from telling the public.

flintstone-vitamins

Paul Offit, chief of the infectious diseases division of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, notes “that scientists have known for years that large quantities of supplemental vitamins can be quite harmful indeed.” Yet, the FDA is prohibited by law from telling the public.

Nutrition experts argue that people need only the recommended daily allowance — the amount of vitamins found in a routine diet. Vitamin manufacturers argue that a regular diet doesn’t contain enough vitamins, and that more is better. Most people assume that, at the very least, excess vitamins can’t do any harm. It turns out, however, that scientists have known for years that large quantities of supplemental vitamins can be quite harmful indeed.

In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1994, 29,000 Finnish men, all smokers, had been given daily vitamin E, beta carotene, both or a placebo. The study found that those who had taken beta carotene for five to eight years were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease.

Two years later the same journal published another study on vitamin supplements. In it, 18,000 people who were at an increased risk of lung cancer because of asbestos exposure or smoking received a combination of vitamin A and beta carotene, or a placebo. Investigators stopped the study when they found that the risk of death from lung cancer for those who took the vitamins was 46 percent higher.

Then, in 2004, a review of 14 randomized trials for the Cochrane Database found that the supplemental vitamins A, C, E and beta carotene, and a mineral, selenium, taken to prevent intestinal cancers, actually increased mortality.

Another review, published in 2005 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that in 19 trials of nearly 136,000 people, supplemental vitamin E increased mortality. Also that year, a study of people with vascular disease or diabetes found that vitamin E increased the risk of heart failure. And in 2011, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association tied vitamin E supplements to an increased risk of prostate cancer.

Finally, last year, a Cochrane review found that “beta carotene and vitamin E seem to increase mortality, and so may higher doses of vitamin A.”

So, why isn’t the industry regulated? Or at least public service announcements airing to spread this information?

In December 1972, concerned that people were consuming larger and larger quantities of vitamins, the F.D.A. announced a plan to regulate vitamin supplements containing more than 150 percent of the recommended daily allowance. Vitamin makers would now have to prove that these “megavitamins” were safe before selling them. Not surprisingly, the vitamin industry saw this as a threat, and set out to destroy the bill. In the end, it did far more than that.

Industry executives recruited William Proxmire, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, to introduce a bill preventing the F.D.A. from regulating megavitamins. On Aug. 14, 1974, the hearing began.

Speaking in support of F.D.A. regulation was Marsha Cohen, a lawyer with the Consumers Union. Setting eight cantaloupes in front of her, she said, “You would need to eat eight cantaloupes — a good source of vitamin C — to take in barely 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C. But just these two little pills, easy to swallow, contain the same amount.” She warned that if the legislation passed, “one tablet would contain as much vitamin C as all of these cantaloupes, or even twice, thrice or 20 times that amount. And there would be no protective satiety level.” Ms. Cohen was pointing out the industry’s Achilles’ heel: ingesting large quantities of vitamins is unnatural, the opposite of what manufacturers were promoting.

A little more than a month later, Mr. Proxmire’s bill passed by a vote of 81 to 10. In 1976, it became law. Decades later, Peter Barton Hutt, chief counsel to the F.D.A., wrote that “it was the most humiliating defeat” in the agency’s history.

As a result, consumers don’t know that taking megavitamins could increase their risk of cancer and heart disease and shorten their lives; they don’t know that they have been suffering too much of a good thing for too long.

This, incidentally, is the Proxmire best known for his Golden Fleece Award lampooning outrageous government spending.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. JKB says:

    Wait a minute, how can consumers not know? There is nothing in that story that indicates the law prevents the dissemination of that information. The law apparently didn’t let the FDA regulate mega-vitamins but they or others can still inform the public about research.

    Decades later, Peter Barton Hutt, chief counsel to the F.D.A., wrote that “it was the most humiliating defeat” in the agency’s history.

    Well, government agencies shouldn’t need to be defeated. They are suppose to present facts to inform the legislators when the latter consider legislation but they are not an equal party, they are hired help. More humiliating defeats would be good for a government agency, then maybe they’d go back to doing their job objectively.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    It’s Orrin Hatch not Proxmire you can thank most for an unregulated supplement industry. He’s been their butt-boy since forever.

  3. Sam Malone says:

    @ JKB…
    from an FDA site it took me less than :30 seconds to find…

    “Vitamins are not dangerous unless you get too much of them,” he says. “More is not necessarily better with supplements, especially if you take fat-soluble vitamins.” For some vitamins and minerals, the National Academy of Sciences has established upper limits of intake (ULs) that it recommends not be exceeded during any given day. (For more information, visit http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=6432#toc

    wrong again…what’s that like…being wrong all the friggin’ time??? do you realize it? or are you oblivious to it? are you aware of the dunning/kruger effect?
    you might look at this…and think about it for a bit…
    http://hcinvestimentos.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Dunning-Kruger-Effect.jpg

  4. Hal 10000 says:

    So another health trend bites the dust. Reading the piece, it looks like we’re being victimized by more “anti-oxidant” BS. Again.

    I swear. One day, they’re going to come out with a study saying that you’ll live longest on a cheeseburger diet.

  5. PJ says:

    …large quantities of supplemental vitamins can be quite harmful indeed

    Large quantities of water can be quite harmful too…

  6. Neil Hudelson says:

    I wonder if this is true across the board, or if water soluble vitamins play a different role–and potential harm–than fat soluble.

    It was always my understanding that if you took to much of a water soluble vitamin–such as B–your body passes the unneeded amount.

    A more widespread understanding of this would also spell a lot of hurt for this energy shots.

  7. Ben says:

    Science-Based Medicine is probably the web link I send most often to family and friends. They do a great job of debunking alt-med, naturopathy, homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, antioxidant, anti-vax, and all the other BS out there. Especially among my wife’s mommy group, it’s amazing the incredible breadth of nonsense that people believe when it comes to medicine. And the obsession with megavitamins is just one tiny little corner of that.

  8. Andre Kenji says:

    @Hal 10000:

    So another health trend bites the dust. Reading the piece, it looks like we’re being victimized by more “anti-oxidant”

    Body Building supplements are the real problem, not Vitamins. Many things that are sold in this Market in the US can´t be sold in many countries. There are weight loss suplements were you consume extremely exaggerated doses of Vitamin C. Prohormones were only banned when people began to die, the same for supplements based on Ephedrine.

  9. It should be noted there is a distinction between mega-vitamins (e.g. taking enormous quantities of specific vitamins far in excess of the recommended daily allowance) and normal multi-vitamins (e.g. a centrum, which is far below those limits). Conflating the two is somewhat disingenuous and sensationalist.

  10. john personna says:

    For what it’s worth as a (former) chemist and scientist,

    I believe the optimal mutli-vitamin consumption is occasional and random.

    and not either “never” or “always.”

    The theory being that your body is very good at snagging nutrients it needs, but that it doesn’t need to be hammered with surpluses every day.

    (They will probably not test “occasional and random” multivitamin consumption, so you have to take this as a deduced rationale.)

  11. Ben says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Although you’re correct that it is probably not harmful taking a multivitamin, it is also completely unnecessary if one has an even slightly normal diet. The most that multivitamins will do for anyone who isn’t severely malnourished is turn your urine orange (due to the B complex doses). I’ve tried explaining this one to my family on numerous occasions, with varying success.

  12. john personna says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    That is kind of a fuzzy distinction. RDA is generally built around deficiency thresholds, and so small multiples of RDA might not be that “mega.”

    One orange has 85% of the RDA for vitamin C. We wouldn’t normally think of eating two oranges as “mega” vitamin therapy.

    (I”m sure we all agree though that eating 2 oranges is massively better than taking the vitamins.)

  13. john personna says:

    @Ben:

    Have you followed the links?

    They’ve documented harm from regular consumption of mutli-vitamins.

  14. Franklin says:

    Personally, I consider the FDA’s function to be a perfectly valid part of government. I’d be curious to see JKB’s evidence that they don’t, in general, perform their job objectively. I’m sure it’s difficult considering the pressure they get from the corporate world, which apparently is perfectly fine in JKB’s world.

  15. john personna says:

    BTW, Michael Pollan wins every diet thread with “”Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

  16. @Ben:

    Although you’re correct that it is probably not harmful taking a multivitamin, it is also completely unnecessary if one has an even slightly normal diet.

    That’s still a long way from “Flintstones brand vitamins is secretly trying to poison your children”, which is what the title and picture at the head of the article seem to be implying.

  17. Ernieyeball says:

    @Ben: Another source of fact based health care information is Quackwatch.

    http://www.quackwatch.com

  18. legion says:

    @Franklin: He has no evidence of such. Everything JKB says is pulled directly from his butt.

  19. john personna says:

    @this:

    That was a straight up anti-science downvote.

  20. Ben Wolf says:

    @Neil Hudelson: It’s a question of how quickly your body can filter the excess. If you take a massive dose of vitamins it can still be toxic depending on residence time.