Since I was a wee pill-popper, I've taken more vitamins and other supplements than I care to admit. If over the years I'd invested that money in an S&P 500 stock fund oh, well.
Now we learn that most of those oils, minerals, exotic fruit extracts and herbs don't help us any more than would a sugar pill, and some actually do harm. Furthermore, all those Earth-themed bottles have little to do with hippies offering cures from nature. They are part of a nearly $30-billion-a-year U.S. industry. Behind it stands an unusually unpleasant team of lobbyists tasked with ensuring that we're never sure what's actually in those pills, threatening politicians who call for their regulation and paying off those who stop said regulation. We've all read the articles suggesting that this or that odd natural substance could ward off dread diseases, not to mention improve eyesight, the complexion and critical thinking. We swallowed the hopeful stories, thinking, hey, these pills can't hurt. But actually they can, as reported in a pile of new studies.
Men worry about their prostates. Many take high doses of vitamin E and selenium, believing they might lower their risk of prostate cancer. But men who consumed these supplements actually had a higher risk of prostate cancer than those who didn't, according to a new study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Another prostate "remedy," saw palmetto extract, apparently does nothing to cut down trips to the bathroom, reports a study also published in JAMA. Men have been spending $30 a month on these pills.
Ladies, the Iowa Women's Health Study has recently found that older women who used multivitamins and other supplements are at higher risk of dying than those who didn't. Specifically cited were vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc and copper.
In addition to possibly doing harm in high doses, the poorly regulated supplements pose two other dangers, Marion Nestle, a food and nutrition specialist at New York University, told me. They may contain impurities from the manufacturing process. And they may not have the active ingredient on the label. Last year, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., introduced the Dietary Supplement Safety Act. It would have required supplement makers to fully list the ingredients and have the federal Food and Drug Administration review their claims of safety and effectiveness. That doesn't sound like too much to ask, but the supplement industry dropped its bunker-busters on even this modest proposal.
James S. Turner, a Washington lobbyist posing as head of a baloney consumer group, "Citizens for Health," issued this hyperventilating indictment: "This bill, typical of Washington's 'destroy the economy, wipe out consumer rights and undermine individual health' mentality, thoughtlessly reinforces the costly, unresponsive, dangerous politics that have created an unsafe and depleted food supply and a bankrupt health care system."
McCain must have noted the horse head in his bed, for he soon withdrew the legislation. Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, where many of these supplements are made, proposed another bill called the Dietary Supplement Full Implementation and Enforcement Act. What would it do? Pretty much the opposite of what its name suggests.
What am I going to do? I'm going to finish off the fish oil capsules and vitamin C chewables and keep taking the multivitamin (whether I need it or not). As for the rest, out they go. And no, I'm not going to tell you what they are. Too embarrassing.