Supplements – American Roulette

August 7, 2012 in Foodland, General, Health Claims, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

In many of my past blogs I have addressed the facts that supplements are not necessary (or even helpful) for most people, and that they may actually increase risks of unhealthy outcomes. It appears that educating the public and stemming the tide of thinking that supplements are necessary, or that we can depend on supplements for health will lead us through some uncomfortable times. This was certainly evident when we came back from our recent trip to Russia and Eastern Europe to find the supplement issue flying in our faces.

First, there was the cover story of the September 2012 Consumer Reports; 10 Surprising Dangers of Vitamins & Supplements; How to protect your family. Second was a rejoinder to the Consumer Reports article titled NPA: Consumer Reports supplements probe is insulting to consumers - NPA is the Natural Products Association. Their response was reported by Elaine Watson, who often covers the responses of the supplement industry to challenges to their marketing arguments, writing in NutraIngredients on August 2, 2012. So I’ll try to share a bit of information to help clarify these two opposing points of view on supplements.

Frankly, the response of the NPA would be fodder for a good laugh about the supplement business, except that so many people are spending their hard earned money on supplements that they don’t need; or even worse, they are increasing their risk of poor health.

Consumer Reports Article

In essence the Consumer Reports article explains that supplements are not risk-free. It tells how some supplements are tainted with prescription drugs or contain some of the same ingredients that prescription drugs contain. The article makes it clear that you CAN overdose on vitamins and minerals; and it provides a chart to set forth the recommended daily intake and safe upper limits are for 10 vitamins and minerals. 

The article cautions consumers to be wary of the so-called ‘warnings’ on labels. Because so many supplements claim to cure major diseases, they try to make a clear argument that supplements are not proven to cure major diseases. Three helpful reference sites provided in the article are: and (the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements) and lastly,  (the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.) They cautioned the public to be careful when buying from botanicas.

Consumer Reports encouraged people to stay safe, and get antioxidants from food, not a pill bottle. Like my post (Healthy Bones – Where Do We Go from Here?) of May 29, 2012 on the increase risk of heart attacks from calcium supplements, Consumer Reports uses the same heart risk study, and other research on the effects of supplements as examples to make the argument that supplements for heart health and cancer protection have not been proven. The Consumer Reports article does say that there are some exceptions; and of course, that is true. Their examples include B12 for vegetarians, the elderly, and those that lack sufficient acid production. In addition, pregnant women need folic acid to help prevent spina bifida.

I appreciated Consumer Reports coming forward and presenting this article; because there are millions of people who are spending unnecessarily on supplements and may even be increasing their risk of poor health. I appreciated the supplement spokespersons who want rogue elements in their industry brought to justice, but they should recognize that the weak regulation of supplements leaves wide latitude for lax or even criminal elements to pander to the illusion that you can get in a few pills the nutrients that a good diet will provide. This lack of strong regulation also attracts both ethical and unethical providers because the pills are cheap to make and profitable to sell.

The NutraIngredients Article

First, I want to say that Natural Products Association (NPA) represents the makers of supplements and is a strong lobbying presence in Washington D.C. for the supplement industry. As far as the Consumer Reports article being insulting to consumers, I did not understand the NPA’s argument. This comment was really directed at only one of the 10 points the consumer reports made, that some people have choked on supplements. Since you can choke on any number of things besides supplements, this somehow insults consumers. Actually, saying this information is insulting for all 10 points seems more of an insult to the good sense of consumers than the reasoned and research-backed information provided by Consumer Reports.  Elaine Watson provided some balance to the NPA comments by quoting Dr. Pieter A. Cohen, MD, from Harvard Medical School, who said:

Although it’s a painful truth for the industry to hear, healthy consumers don’t need supplements.”

“There is no evidence that a healthy person would benefit from obtaining a nutrient from a supplement rather than food.”

“I agree with Consumer Reports that consumers should obtain their nutrients from food, and there’s no need for ‘extra insurance’ from supplements – in fact, for many consumers, supplements might do more harm than good.”  Pieter Cohen, MD

Today, my big recommendation is to take five minutes and listen to a YouTube presentation titled American Roulette by Dr. Cohen. In it he explains so very clearly why we need to be very careful with taking supplements. He inspired the title of this blog.

Good Health Can Be Yummy; it comes in the form of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes – skip the supplements unless you have a special need and have been advised by your M.D.