Vitamin E Witch Hunt
Less than two months ago, I debunked a report in the Lancet medical journal
claiming antioxidants slightly increase one's chance of dying, rather than
reducing it as most researchers believe.
Now I'm writing about a report that says the same thing about a specific
antioxidant, vitamin E.
Why are these pills being persecuted? Among the similarities of the earlier
report and this one, authored by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of
Public Health, is that the mainstream media accepted both without question.
Both times the researchers smugly declared their work the final word on the
subject, though both reports were, as the vitamin E report admitted, "a
qualitative departure from previous findings."
Since a good scientist knows no single report ever proves anything, we know
these weren't good scientists. In fact, they have less in common with Johns
Hopkins than Matthew Hopkins - England's infamous "Witch-finder General."
Consider the vitamin E paper, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
It analyzed 19 clinical trials between 1993 and 2004, involving 136,000
people. These were combined into what's called a "meta-analysis," which
showed no overall increase in deaths. But at high levels, defined as above
400 international units (IUs) per day, the researchers insisted "vitamin E
supplements may increase [deaths] and should be avoided."
A glaring problem is there have been far more than 19 vitamin E trials
since 1993, and one way the pack was whittled down was exclusion of all
studies reporting fewer than 10 deaths. The witch-hunters weren't about to
interrogate witnesses who might keep the accused from a visit to the
See Other LifeSource Vitamins Vitamin E Products, Articles, and
Also, if "more is worse," why did the two studies using the highest dose,
2,000 IUs daily, indicate fewer deaths among vitamin E users? Another
problem with this report is that, though clinical trials are important,
epidemiological studies cannot be ignored. Yet ignored they were.
Thus there was no reference to the 1996 study from the National Institute
of Aging that followed 11,000 elderly people for seven years and found the
death rate for vitamin E users was a third that of nonusers. Adding another
antioxidant, vitamin C, cut fatalities even more.
A 1993 Harvard study of 40,000 male health professionals found those who
took at least 100 IUs daily for two years had a third fewer cases of heart
disease than those receiving no vitamin E supplements. A Harvard study of
87,000 nurses that year found an even greater reduction in heart disease
when comparing women who took the highest amount of vitamin E vs. those
taking the lowest amount.
Does this have you running in terror at the sight of a vitamin E capsule?
But what's with the supplement witch-hunt? Why the reports of vitamin E
flying on broomsticks, and beta carotene casting hexes?
"Unfortunately, there are some doctors who are biased against dietary
supplements," says John Hathcock, vice president of Scientific &
International Affairs at the D.C.-based Council for Responsible Nutrition.
To an extent, this is understandable. First, some supplements are worthless
and a few have proved harmful. But you just can't lump "eye of newt" in
together with vitamin E or other antioxidants.
Mainstream medicine is also biased toward that which has formal FDA
approval. You know, like Vioxx. And never mind the many supplements such as
iron and iodine that have tacit FDA support but no formal approval.
Some doctors also fret that people will try to substitute supplements for
good eating habits. "We don't think that people need to take vitamin E
supplements, that they get enough from the diet," said the lead vitamin E
prosecutor, associate professor Edgar Miller. Yet the average American gets
only about 10 IU daily. With some studies show 2,000 IUs to be beneficial,
dietary intake leaves us a bit shy of the mark. Anyway, those taking
vitamins and other supplements also have the best diets.
The final explanation for vitamin-pill persecution is that medical journals
are becoming increasingly sensationalist. Publishing articles contrary to
popular wisdom is a cheap and easy way to get headlines. But there's no
excuse for throwing a noose around the neck of good science and healthful
by Michael Fumento
Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute.
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