The United Supplements of America
How fear (of cancer) and loathing (of regulation) allows America’s supplement industry to thrive, unfettered by scientific data.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women of most racial/ethnic groups in the United States, including; African Americans, Hispanics, and Whites. I almost never hear anyone talk about heart disease, as it seems, cancer stalks my friend’s and the public’s imaginations like no other disease does. Almost 1 million people die every single year of heart disease in the U.S. It claims more lives than ALL FORMS OF CANCER combined. In the U.S., someone has a heart attack every 34 seconds. That is a staggering number. One out of every 3 women will die of heart disease (1 out of 31 of breast cancer).
Death rates for female breast cancer have declined 36 percent from peak rates in 1989, while deaths from prostate and colorectal cancers have each dropped about 50 percent from their peak, a result of improvements in early detection and treatment. Overall, cancer death rates fell 23 percent between 1991 and 2012.
The “organic” and homeopathic/ supplements industries have grown out of the public’s fear of cancer: “toxins,” herbicides, and pesticides seem to be the target with GMO crops taking much of the blame. This is followed closely by recommendations for antioxidant supplements, vitamin pills or even something as outlandish and unlikely as “alkaline water”. In 2010, the vitamin supplement industry grossed over $28 billion.
There are some very real ways to prevent cancer: avoid smoking, alcohol, and sun exposure- in fact, you might as well add “avoid consuming supplemental vitamins” to that short list, as we will discuss in a bit.
We know that less than 1 percent of U.S. adults’ diets meet the American Heart Association’s definition for an “Ideal Healthy Diet.” Eating patterns have changed dramatically in the past few decades. Research from 1971 to 2004 shows that women consumed an average of 22 percent more calories in that span and men consumed an average of 10 percent more than previous years. The average woman eats about 1,900 calories a day and the average man has nearly 2,700, according to government figures.
The number one dietary recommendation to decrease both risk of heart disease and cancer, is to increase the amount of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in the diet. The second recommendation is to get more physical activity. High protein, low carb, and gluten-free fad diets make it nearly impossible to meet the first recommendation. Yet… most Americans think that, along with these eating restrictions, they should also increase their vitamin intake. In 2012, more than half of all Americans took some form of vitamin supplements.
Even as a scientist, before researching this topic, I assumed the following disclaimer,
“These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease,”
meant that, even if they didn’t perform exactly as claimed, at least they couldn’t do any harm. Right?
I was unaware of the dozens of well-controlled clinical studies, which conclusively demonstrate the negative impact of supplements on our health. For example, recent studies have shown that women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn’t, that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer, and at least seven other previous studies have shown that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease and shortened lives. In 2008, a review of all existing studies involving more than 230,000 people who did (or did not) receive supplemental antioxidants found that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease. These studies are listed in the references below.
Because these data are so clear, not a single national or international organization responsible for the public’s health recommends taking vitamins. That is, unless you have a demonstrated deficiency, and have been prescribed them by a doctor (a real doctor). The effect is so well known in medical literature that it has a name “The Antioxidant Paradox”. As it turns out, your body NEEDS free radicals to kill cancer cells and bacteria. Sometimes the immune system needs big guns to kill harmful invaders. If you neutralize them with an overload of supplemental antioxidants, you essentially reduce your body’s ability to fight back.
Consumers have no guarantee as to the safety or effectiveness of supplemental products, as the FDA does not review dietary supplements before they come onto the market. Several recent studies have shown that vitamins supplements can be contaminated with heavy metals in trace amounts and pesticides in amounts exceeding legal limits.
The vast majority of supplement suppliers are located overseas — principally in China. Nearly all of the vitamin C and many other supplements consumed in the United States are made from ingredients manufactured in Chinese plants. Those plants are almost never inspected by the FDA. Many brands claim to be made in the U.S.A. It doesn’t matter what the brand name is on the product — the raw materials that make it up almost certainly came from China or India. There is no requirement for labels on supplements to indicate the country of origin of the ingredients. They are imported separately and many manufacturers compound them in Utah. More on that in a bit as well.
Additionally, DNA testing of herbal “medicinal” supplements, demonstrates rampant adulteration, contamination, and mislabeling. The herbal market is a 5 BILLION dollar industry. Pills being sold as herbals were found to be diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice, or other plants in their entirety, which could be hazardous to health, for example:
1. Echinacea supplements — used by millions of Americans to prevent and treat colds contained ground up bitter weed, Parthenium hysterophorus, an invasive plant found in India and Australia that has been linked to rashes, nausea, and flatulence.
2. St. John’s Wort — contained Alexandrian senna, an Egyptian yellow shrub that is a powerful laxative.
3. Gingko biloba supplements- promoted as memory enhancers were mixed with fillers and black walnut, a potentially deadly hazard for people with nut allergies.
4. One product advertised as black cohosh — a North American plant and popular remedy for hot flashes and menopause symptoms — actually contained a related Asian plant, Actaea asiatica, which can be toxic to humans.
Why don’t consumers have any guarantee as to the safety or effectiveness of supplemental products? Following the money and politics trail back to 1994, we find Senator Orrin Hatch, from a small state with a large economic stake in the supplements industry, Utah. In 1994, Congress enacted the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which Hatch helped author and push through. This act allows for the marketing and sales of “dietary supplements” with little or no regulation. Prior to 1994, Utah’s supplements industry was worth less than 1 billion dollars, now it is worth over 7 billion and is considered by some to be the State’s top industry. It has been estimated that nearly one in four dollars in the total supplement market passes through this state.
This legislation must go. It’s dangerous and costly for consumers, and provides protection for business entities whose apparent purpose is to promote their profit above general health and safety. Many claim that their products can treat almost anything from the common cold to diabetes, to cancer and heart disease.
As if the above mentioned negative clinical study data were not enough, in the last two years, federal records show that 2,292 serious illnesses, including 33 that were fatal, were reported by consumers of nutritional supplements. It’s amazing to me how public perception has reframed these risks to focus on GMO labeling, pesticide, and herbicide use, and how anti-vaxxers squawk about adjuvant mercury in vaccines, but do not blink when their supplements are not tested for heavy metal contamination or even contain what they say they do.
All evidence including federal reports make it clear; that manufacturers of herbal dietary supplements and vitamins use deceptive and questionable marketing practices, that consumers do not have access to clear, concise, scientifically supported information so that they can make informed choices concerning a product’s purported health benefits, that consumers face health risks because federal laws and agencies do not consistently ensure that these products are safe or effective.
This article also appears on We Love GMOs and Vaccines.
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