Negative Reports on Supplements

January 22, 2008 at 4:44 pm (Alternative Medicine, Supplements) (, , , , , , , )

Recently, there have been a few negative reports on food supplements. The BMJ Calcium Study (PDF) was reported by the Press Association as finding that “Calcium supplements may increase the risk of heart attacks among older women”. The Press Association ended their statement with “Anyone who has been advised by their doctor to take calcium supplements to protect their bones should not stop doing so in light of this study alone without medical advice”, which seems sensible. The BBC News and Daily Telegraph reports also include this statement (which was made by Judy O’Sullivan, a cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation).

The BBC News, Times and Daily Mail reports also include a mention for HSIS. These were the only news reports that I could find on Google that referred to the Health Supplements Information Service. Except for Forbes, who seem to think that HSIS are sponsored by Big Pharma (yes, they really do say that HSIS is funded by pharmaceutical companies). Edit: this has now been confimed by Coracle (see comment #1).

The BBC News report said:

Pamela Mason, nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Health Supplements Information Service (HSIS), which is funded by several leading supplement manufacturers, said the study was small and had a high drop out rate.

I wondered what the point of that statement was. Did Pamela Mason consider that the study was too small to yield statistically significant results? She hasn’t actually said so, but what else would be the point of stating that the study was small? Can complaining that a particular study “was small” be a convenient way of distracting from the authors’ findings?

The Daily Mail had a slightly expanded quote which included this:

Dr Mason said the calcium intake in this study of women, averaging 800mg a day, was above the recommended UK rates of 700mg a day.

Erm… doesn’t this mean that the participants didn’t need to take Calcium supplements. That’s not very convenient for leading supplement manufacturers is it? Customers don’t need to buy their products as their intakes are (on average) already above the recommended levels as quoted by Pamela Mason. Professor Ian Reid (named as one of the study authors) is quoted in the Mail as saying that healthy older women “randomly” taking extra calcium had increased rates of heart attack. Also not very convenient for leading supplement manufacturers, but at least Ian Reid doesn’t work for HSIS. Funny how those in the alt-med industry sometimes (OK, often) appear to be closer in spirit to Spin Doctors than Medical Doctors. Pamela Mason is not the worst supplements industry spokesperson I’ve heard of, though. See here for more on another (ex-?) HSIS spokesperson.

I did say “reports”, didn’t I? Well, the Mayo clinic has released a couple of pieces recently. Hormonal Dietary Supplements can, apparently, promote the progression of prostate cancer and decrease the effectiveness of anti-cancer drugs and Mayo have also released a tip-sheet, which informs us that featured articles from the January issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings include the effects of antioxidant supplements on cancer. For the study, two authors reviewed all randomized trials on antioxidants for cancer prevention(1968-2005) and identified 12 clinical trials with a total eligible population of 104,196. The following findings are from this study:

*Overall, antioxidant supplementation did not reduce the risk of cancer.
*Beta carotene supplementation was actually found to increase the risk of smoking-related cancers, as well as cancer mortality, and thus should be avoided, especially by tobacco users.
*Vitamin E appeared to have no beneficial or harmful effects.
*Selenium supplementation was found to lower the risk of cancer in men (not in women), but the number of trials were few and further research is required. A large trial assessing the effect of selenium in lowering the risk of prostate cancer is currently underway.

For more on antioxidants, try typing the word into the search box on Bad Science. Or try the old Improbable Science page to find the (probable) origin of the word “nutribollocks” .

Also from the Mayo Clinic, we have another snippet: a Q&A on chronic fatigue. Kenneth Berge, MD concludes his article by saying that at this time, “there is insufficient evidence of benefit to recommend any specific dietary or herbal supplements as a treatment for chronic fatigue”. This next link isn’t directly related but some supplements are, of course, advertised for their supposed energy-giving properties. Take B Vitamins, for example.

7 Comments

  1. coracle said,

  2. MartinLee said,

    I agree that there are a lot of bad reports coming out. But, my experience is that supplements work–not all of them. I use http://www.webmd.com and http://www.nutritionaltree.com to research them before I buy them. Just be careful…

  3. jdc said,

    Coracle – thanks for the interesting info. I knew RP Scherer, Seven Seas, Peter Black sold food supplements and were involved in industry bodies. Didn’t know that HSIS were funded by Boots & Roche, though.

    MartinLee – thanks for the comment. Had a look at the websites you referred to and while nutritionaltree relies on testimonials from anonymous strangers via the internet, webmd does seem to be a little more critical e.g., their Apple Cider Vinegar page asks if it should be used and the webmd answer includes this:

    The answer depends on how you want to use apple cider vinegar. As a salad dressing, you should be fine. But taken as a daily medical treatment, it could be a little more risky.

  4. SOG knives said,

    SOG knives…

    Interesting ideas… I wonder how the Hollywood media would portray this?…

    EDIT: I’m being spammed by knife salesmen. I have no idea what the Hollywood media would make of SOG knives or my blog post on food supplements. Link removed anyway. jdc

  5. Supplements from Foods said,

    Very nice.

    A Canadian company, Naturally Nova Scotia, makes supplements from foods instead of synthetics. The have vitamin C from fruit, herbal tinctures, green drinks, vitamin D3, and others.

  6. Another Report on the Dangers of Vitamins « jdc325’s Weblog said,

    […] coverage; abstract; more negative reports on supplements (an old blog post – includes discussion of the BMJ Calcium/cancer […]

  7. Patricia regina Gómez said,

    I would like someone give me the expeience with nes energetic suplements.
    my ilness is fibomialgia and fatigue cronic syndrome. Thanks.
    My email pgrivera1@yahoo.com.ar

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