Take your vitamins. They’re good for you, right? We’ve been hearing that ever since we were kids chewing our Flintstones. But lately, the controversy has been heating up. Vitamin E supplements, once highly recommended, are now considered potentially dangerous for some people.
And beta carotene, an antioxidant, has been shown in studies to increase risk of lung cancer in smokers, former smokers and asbestos workers. Does that mean beta carotene itself is bad? Or is it just the way it’s being used?
The research is muddled enough, and then there’s the propaganda machine of the big-biz supplement industry compounding the confusion.
Is that cluster of bottles on the kitchen counter a tonic for nutrition-hungry bods – or just plain scary?
What the experts say
“Every time a vitamin is researched, the recommended daily intake is increased. The dose for folic acid, said to prevent birth defects and dementia, used to be 40 micrograms. It has been changed to 400. The dose for vitamin D has been increased, too. In the beta carotene studies, they used synthetic beta carotene at high doses. It was only one of 600 to 800 carotenoids that may be important in preventing cancer. When you give a synthetic version of one nutrient, you block absorption of other beneficial ones. It was the same thing with vitamin E studies. All 40 essential nutrients need to be in the right amounts in the body. That’s why a multivitamin is a good basis for supplementing. Work with somebody who knows how to choose one form over another. I don’t recommend just going to the store and buying supplements.”
AILEEN BURFORD-MASON, nutritionist, immunologist, Toronto
“Try to get your nutrition through food and not through supplements. Supplements give you a high concentration of one or a few particular elements that are in healthy foods, but they’re not in the same balance. Don’t think that if a little bit is good, a lot must be better. People need vitamins, but in relatively small amounts. Too much vitamin A, for example, may cause osteoporosis. Be careful about bandwagons. Supplement pushers tend to be those who have a financial interest in them. In the last five to eight years, there has been tremendous interest in increasing the daily dose of vitamin D, though, and evidence certainly does seem to support that.”
JOHN SWARTZBERG, professor of medicine, University of California, Berkeley, ed board chair, UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
“In this day and age, food is not cultivated using the best soil and fertilizer and is of much lower quality than 50 years ago. So a lot of the time, you’re not going to get adequate nutrition. The problem is that every other week there’s some new supplement being touted. What works for one person might not work for another, and you can easily spend thousands of dollars on supplements that may not be doing anything for you. You need to know what you’re doing. Look at the research, the methodology, who’s doing the study, whether the supplement company itself is funding it. Look for long-term studies by third parties.”
ERIK BOUDREAU, naturopath, Toronto
“Many people don’t necessarily need vitamin supplements. But some people have aversions to certain foods, like vegetables. When people see the word ‘natural,’ they assume the product is not a drug, which is incorrect. A lot of drugs are derived from natural sources. Foxglove is used to produce digoxin, for instance. It’s very natural but deadly if not taken in proper amounts. ‘Natural’ is not synonymous with ‘safe.’ I haven’t seen any studies that show a huge benefit for taking a natural supplement over a synthetic one. The one exception could be vitamin E.”
BARRY POWER, director of practice development, Canadian Pharmacists Association, Ottawa