Web version: www.prohealth.com/ep/EP043010
Who's Running the Scam - Vitamin Companies... or Reader's Digest?
By Karen Lee Richards*
As I walked through the checkout line at the grocery store, my eyes fell
on the cover of the April 2010 issue of Reader's Digest.
It was hard to miss. The words
"THE VITAMIN SCAM" in big, bold, red letters almost jumped off the page.
Then right below it in a bright blue circle was the instruction to "Read this
before you pop another pill!"
Since I spend quite a few hours each week studying and writing about the
research behind various vitamins and supplements, I was anxious to get home
and see what this article had to say. Sadly, I discovered that this once
highly-respected periodical had resorted to tabloid tactics - using a
sensational headline on the cover to entice readers to buy the magazine.
And when I opened the magazine, I discovered that the article inside was
poorly sourced and bore little resemblance to the tantalizing headline
plastered across the cover.
Uncovering the Real "Truths and Lies"
The article, written by Christie Aschwanden, was entitled, "Vitamin Truths
& Lies."(1) It listed five "myths" about vitamins, explaining why they
were not true... then ended with one truth. Let's take an in-depth look at
these so-called myths and the evidence used to support RD's claims that
vitamins are a waste of money.
RD Myth #1: A multivitamin can make up for a bad diet.
Well, duh! I don't know anyone who thinks you can eat whatever you like
and then just take a multivitamin and expect to be healthy. Anyone with a
little common sense knows it's important to eat a well-balanced diet. One of
the main reasons for taking multivitamins in addition to eating well is to
help replace some of the nutrients that have been stripped from the
overly-processed food found in today's markets.
On top of starting with an absurd premise, the study they used to "prove"
their point had serious flaws. According to the article, "a long term study
of more than 160,000 midlife women...showed that multivitamin-takers are
no healthier than those who don't pop the pills, at least when it comes to
the big diseases - cancer, heart disease, stroke."
What they failed to tell you was that this "study" was not what we
normally think of as a clinical trial. Participants were not given high-quality
multivitamins daily for several years. Instead it was an interview which
included women who said they took at least one multivitamin a week - it didn't
matter what kind or quality of multivitamin. After eight years, data on the
incidence of specific cancers, heart disease and stroke were gathered and
I can't help but think this study was designed to fail. Why would anyone
logically expect that someone who took a cheap, synthetic multivitamin once
a week would experience a significant decrease in risk of major diseases?
It just doesn't make sense. But media outlets like the Reader's Digest were
only too happy to use it as "evidence" that multivitamins provide no
Speaking of not making sense... after three paragraphs of explaining how
multivitamins are worthless, they concluded by saying that women of
reproductive age should take a multivitamin to help prevent birth defects. So much
for Myth #1.
RD Myth #2: Vitamin C is a cold fighter.
In an effort to support their contention that vitamin C doesn't help the
body fight colds, a 2007 review that compiled data from several smaller
studies was cited. In these studies, participants took only about 200 mg of
vitamin C each day. Some took it all the time and others only after the onset
of cold symptoms. Once again, there was no control or consistency as to the
type and quality of vitamin C used. Not surprisingly, the study concluded
that vitamin C did not reduce the incidence of colds in the normal
population, although it was effective for subgroups consisting of marathon runners,
skiers and soldiers on sub-arctic exercises.(2)
What the author didn't bother to mention was that this review was updated
in February 2010. The update specifically noted that the data used in the
original review were based on intakes of vitamin C far below the levels
actually thought to be helpful.
Another thing the RD article neglected to mention was other studies that
used higher doses of vitamin C - like the 1999 study of more than 700
students. In this study, participants reporting cold symptoms were given 1,000 mg
of vitamin C for the first six hours and then three times daily
thereafter. Those without symptoms were given 1,000 mg three times a day. The control
group with cold symptoms was treated with pain relievers and d
econgestants. In the end, the students receiving the megadoses of vitamin C reported
85% fewer cold and flu symptoms than the control group.(3)
What these studies show is that while low doses of vitamin C may not help
us fight colds, higher doses can be very effective in supporting the body's
ability to fend off and reduce the symptoms of colds.
RD Myth #3: Vitamin pills can prevent heart disease.
The basic tactic used throughout this article was to completely ignore
studies that had a positive result and make general statements about studies
that didn't pan out - without giving enough specifics for the reader to
judge the validity of the studies. When it came to how vitamins might relate to
risk of heart disease, the author alluded to studies that purportedly
indicated vitamins C, E, B6, B12 and folate were not helpful in supporting
reduced risk of heart disease.
Just a couple of the studies relating to cardiovascular health that the
author chose to ignore included:
A CoQ-10 study of 109 patients in which 51% were able to stop taking
between one and three antihypertensive medications an average of 4.4 months
after starting CoQ-10 supplementation.(5)
A study in which 10 healthy participants took 500 mg of curcumin
(turmeric) each day for seven days. At the end of the week, they had:
A 33% decrease in the blood levels of oxidized cholesterol.
An 11.63% decrease in total serum cholesterol.
A 29% increase in HDL ('good') cholesterol.(6)
The jury is still out on how helpful some vitamins (like C and E) might be
in supporting reduced heart disease risk. Some studies have had positive
results while others have shown no difference. But there's little doubt that
other supplements, like CoQ-10, curcumin and vitamin D3, can be beneficial
in supporting cardiovascular health.
RD Myth #4: Taking vitamins can protect against cancer.
A 2008 study, which concluded that a combination of folic acid, vitamin
B6, and vitamin B12 supplementation had no significant effect on overall risk
of invasive or breast cancer among women, was cited as proof that vitamins
can't bolster the body's natural defenses against cancer. While there may
have been no reduction in cancer risk for women as a whole, what they
neglected to mention was that, for women over 65, there was:
A 25% reduction in the risk of invasive cancer,
And a 38% reduction in the risk of breast cancer.(6)
They also conveniently omitted multiple other studies providing evidence
that a number of different vitamins can support reduced cancer risk. For
In a 2007 study of 1,179 women, the incidence of several types of cancer
was as much as 77% lower in those supplementing with a combination of
calcium and vitamin D3.(7)
A new study, presented last week at the American Association for Cancer
Research's 101st Annual Meeting 2010, linked vitamin and calcium
supplementation with an apparent 30% to 40% reduction in breast cancer risk.(8)
Another supplement that has been strongly linked to reduced cancer risk is
curcumin, the primary component of the spice tumeric. According to the
American Cancer Society, "A growing body of laboratory research suggests the
spice turmeric has potent anticancer activity - and researchers have
launched a slew of human trials to find out just how powerful it may be."(9)
Laboratory and animal studies suggest that curcumin may help the body prevent,
control the spread of, or kill several types of cancer including breast,
skin, colon and prostate cancers. It is also being tested vis-a-vis other
cancers such as metastatic melanoma, mantle cell lymphoma, multiple myeloma and
advanced pancreatic cancer.(10-18)
And so Myth #4 bites the dust - it seems that taking certain vitamins may
indeed help the body protect against cancer.
RD Myth #5: Hey, it can't hurt.
The article went so far as to say that, not only are vitamins not helpful,
but they can actually hurt you. This contention was primarily based on a
2004 study designed to find out if beta-carotene (vitamin A) was effective
in preventing lung cancer. The researchers were surprised to discover that
instead of preventing lung cancer, the beta carotene actually seemed to
increase the incidence of lung cancer by 28% and overall mortality by 17%.(19)
We've long known that getting too much vitamin A can be dangerous, and
this study certainly provides another good reason to avoid over-supplementing
with it. But surmising that because too much of one particular vitamin may
be bad for you, you shouldn't take any vitamins at all is a bit like (to
use my grandmother's expression) throwing out the baby with the bath water.
There is a tremendous amount of research supporting the benefits of vitamins
and other supplements to promote better health.
RD TRUTH #1: A pill that's worth taking.
Finally, in a complete turn-around from the previous 'vitamins are
worthless' stance, the article acknowledges the importance of vitamin D
supplementation and recommends that most people take at least 1,000 IU of vitamin D
Even though they had previously said vitamins can't prevent heart disease
or protect against cancer, they support their vitamin D recommendation by
telling of research suggesting that it cuts the risk of heart attack in half
for men, and lowers the risk of at least half a dozen cancers. Yes, they
completely contradicted themselves, but at least this time they got it
The Truth Behind the Purported "Scam"
A scam is defined as "a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation" and
constitutes a pretty serious accusation. Although Reader's Digest boldly
proclaimed vitamins to be a scam on their cover, their article failed to show any
evidence of fraud or deception. On the other hand, they did pull something
of a scam on their readers by printing such a deceptive headline.
I'm deeply disappointed in Reader's Digest for publishing such a blatantly
biased article. At best, they've done a great disservice to their readers.
At worst, I fear they may have compromised the health of people who
counted on them to be an honest and trustworthy publication - all for the sake of
a cheap headline and the sale of a few more magazines.
* Karen Lee Richards is Lead Expert specializing in Fibromyalgia and
ME/CFS, for HealthCentral's ChronicPainConnection www.chronicpainconnection.com.
Karen is co-founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) and was
Executive Editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE magazine for four years.
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2009 Feb 9;169(3):294-304.
3. Douglas RM, et al. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common
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