The vitamin critics are at it again…

The headlines have been everywhere and it seems that we are back in the dark days of vitamin bashing, perhaps prompted by reports that even in these hard economic times vitamin sales are booming. As in the past, for every negative study on vitamins there are many positive ones, except that only the research with negative findings gets reported, no matter how poorly designed or unreliable it is! Among the latest news you may have heard or read about, vitamin E was supposedly found to cause prostate cancer. As simple as that, or maybe not…

Let’s take a closer look at the data that prompted this “finding.” (1) When taking low-quality synthetic vitamin E or a placebo, the risk of prostate cancer was found to be higher in people taking vitamin E with no other supplement by an astounding 0.63%! Whenever the difference is less than 1% it is hard to attribute much significance to it, because any study done on a sample of the population will have a margin of error. To conclude that vitamin E causes prostate cancer based on a 0.63% rate increase in a single study is preposterous.

There is more. In this very same study, when people took Vitamin E plus Selenium the increased risk fell to just 0.24%. Selenium does only one thing: it makes vitamin E more effective. So if vitamin E causes cancer, the rate should go up, not down, when it is taken with selenium. In reality, it has been common knowledge for years that antioxidants like vitamin E should not be taken alone but in a balanced complex containing all the major antioxidants. When taken alone they can be counterproductive and even lead to worse health.

Two other “minor” details from this same study were completely overlooked in news reports. The first was that people on the combination of vitamin E (remember, this is low-quality synthetic vitamin E) and selenium had a 0.2% reduction in mortality from all causes and the second that the risk of serious cardiovascular events fell by 0.7%.

In addition, there are many other recent vitamin E studies that have reached completely different conclusions. In one of these gamma-tocotrienol, a component of vitamin E found in high-quality natural vitamin E supplements, was found to actually kill prostate cancer stem cells (2). These are the very cells from which prostate cancer develops!


  • Vitamin E was found to reduce mortality by 24% in persons 71 or older (3)
  • Taking 300 IU of vitamin E was found to reduce lung cancer rates by 61% (4)
  • Vitamin E was found to reduce atherosclerosis (5)
  • 800 IU of vitamin E per day was found to be an effective treatment for fatty liver disease (6)

I had just finished writing this piece when I received an email from a mother who had just read that a number of vitamins and minerals were proven to increase the risk of death and was concerned because they were all contained in her son’s multi.

Here we are talking about vitamin B6, folic acid, magnesium, zinc, and a few more. Let me just say that by our government’s own admission, 70% of Americans do not get the RDA for magnesium through their diet. Magnesium is essential to life as are the other nutrients listed above. The problem today is that our health suffers because we don’t get enough of them, not that these essential vitamins and minerals kill us!

I looked up the news report the mother had cited and found that it was actually based on published research. The study was an observational one – or the least reliable type of research there is – where people just report sporadically on their health and what they have been doing and taking. There is no verification process and results can be influenced by a number of factors, including faulty memory on the part of the people reporting.

Again, the increase in mortality for those taking those “dangerous” vitamins was a tiny 1%. In addition, people who reported taking a B-complex plus Vitamins C, D, E, and calcium experienced a lower – not a higher – mortality rate, but somehow this detail didn’t make into the news report.

Unfortunately it seems media policy has long been to only report news on vitamins if it is bad while at the same time ignoring or minimizing bad news on drugs. I wish we could start getting more impartial reports at some point!

(1)Klein EA, et al. JAMA 2011; 306 (14): 1549-56

(2)Sze Ue Luk, et al. International Journal of Cancer, 2011. Vol 128, No 9, p 2182-91

(3)Hemila H, et al. Ageing, 2011. 40 (2): 215-220. January 27

(4)Mahabir S, et al Int J Cancer. 2008 Sep 1; 123 (5): 1173-80

(5)Hodis HN, et al. JAMA, 1995. 273:1849-54

(6)Sanyal AJ, et al. N Engl J Med. 2010 May 6; 362 (18): 1675-85

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