Food supplements work… if you have health issues that require them, say medical experts.
Otherwise, what you create with supplement pills rhymes with vitamin C, they say.
That would be: Expensive vitamin pee.
“What you need is a good diet. You’re p***ing the money down the toilet for no benefit.” – Associate professor Ken Harvey of the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, speaking to broadcaster ABC about multivitamin supplements being of little use.
“I’ve been taking vitamins all my life. I had a blood test before I gave them up for six weeks and I had another blood test at the end. For me, the vitamins weren’t making any difference… They said I had very expensive wee. I was spending money on vitamins that were just going straight through.” – TV presenter Sian Williams, who underwent the experiment for ITV series Save Money: Good Health. She spent $558 a year on supplements.
“What a lot of Australians have is very expensive urine.” – Dr Michael Gannon, the president of the Australian Medical Association, in comments to ABC about taking supplements.
Amount consumers in Singapore spent on vitamins and supplements last year, according to market research firm Euromonitor.
Amount spent on vitamins and supplements in 2012 here. The demand for such products had risen as we turned to these products in a bid for a healthier lifestyle.
Our expensive belief in food supplements was kick-started by one scientist, whose faith in vitamins eventually tarnished his legendary reputation.
Read on to find out how far he took his belief in vitamins, so we may think about how far we should take ours.
C is for ‘curing cancer’
He had a distinguished career as a scientist, but later faced accusations of quackery.
The BBC reported that his legendary reputation began to be tarnished when, in 1964, he started adding vitamin C to his orange juice in the morning.
“I began to feel livelier and healthier. In particular, the severe colds I had suffered several times a year all my life no longer occurred. After a few years, I increased my intake of vitamin C to 10 times, then 20 times, and then 300 times the RDA (recommended dietary allowance): Now 18,000mg per day.” – Dr Pauling.
In 1970, he published Vitamin C And The Common Cold, urging the public to take 3,000mg of vitamin C every day. The book became an instant best seller.
The Atlantic said sales of vitamin C quadrupled. Vitamin manufacturers called it “the Linus Pauling effect”.
Number of Americans following Dr Pauling’s advice by the mid-1970s.
The BBC said as sales in multivitamins and other dietary supplements boomed, so did his fame. But his academic reputation went the other way. Over the years, the benefits of taking vitamin C, and many other dietary supplements, have found little backing from scientific study.
He also claimed vitamin C cured cancer.
His notion that large doses of vitamin C were beneficial in the treatment of cancer was put to test in various trials, with most studies concluding that the vitamin worked no better than a placebo, according to Montreal Gazette.
Dr Pauling also claimed that vitamin C, when taken with massive doses of vitamin A and vitamin E, as well as selenium and beta-carotene, could do more than just prevent colds and treat cancer; he claimed they could treat virtually every disease known to man:
- Altitude sickness
- Bladder ailments
- Canker sores
- Chicken pox
- Cold sores
- Fever blisters
- Hay fever
- Heart disease
- Heat prostration
- Kidney failure
- Mental illness
- Radiation poisoning
- Retinal detachment
- Typhoid fever
- Whooping cough
Dr Pauling was later diagnosed with cancer.
A reporter wrote that after Dr Pauling revealed he had cancer, a brave soul asked why his vitamin C had not protected him. Dr Pauling apparently retorted that had he not taken the vitamin, he would have been afflicted decades earlier.
Some people aren’t giving up on his claims either, with one heart-attack patient saying he took vitamin supplements instead of drugs preventing heart attacks.
Dr Pauling eventually died of cancer.
It tastes better
Vitamins work… when they’re absorbed by our bodies from actual food.
“They are accompanied by many non-essential but beneficial nutrients, such as hundreds of carotenoids, flavonoids, minerals, and antioxidants that aren’t in most supplements.” – Dr Clifford Lo, an associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, on nutrients being the most potent when they come from food. He advised trying to improve our diets before we use supplements.
“We know that nutrients are beneficial in foods, but divorced of that context, and packaged somewhat ‘arbitrarily’ by us, the effects may be very different. Imagine if you had all the right materials to build a house but in all the wrong proportions, and then tried to put together a well-built house.” – Dr David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center.
“Food tastes better and is often less expensive than adding supplements.” – Dr Howard Sesso, an epidemiologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“u want to eat 1kg of beancurd everyday?? Faiz Azmi eat until jelak.” – ST Facebook reader Filzah Nadia, responding to an infographic post saying 1kg of beancurd contains our daily requirement of calcium – up to 1,000mg of it.
We appreciate the humour. Sure, you can eat a bucketful of beancurd, or you can also enjoy milk and other dairy products, fish such as salmon and sardines, and dark, leafy greens.
D may be for Deficiency
“One might expect that this should not be a problem living in Singapore. But I have come across patients who see very little sunshine due to the nature of their jobs, and hence develop vitamin D insufficiency over time.” – Dr Derek Li, a family physician at Raffles Medical. He said if a healthy person planned his meals and got regular exercise, he might not need supplements, but he noted a possible exception for vitamin D.
We make vitamin D in our bodies by exposing our skin to ultraviolet B radiation in sunlight.
We can also get it from foods like salmon, tuna, lean beef, vitamin D-fortified milk and yogurt, fortified orange juice, egg yolk and, of course, there are supplements.
Surprisingly, vitamin D deficiency is becoming a concern in another country also known for its sunny days.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that rickets is re-emerging in Australian children, spurring calls for a major campaign about the risk of vitamin D deficiency in pregnant women and babies. “Hundreds of children have been diagnosed with the preventable bone disease that can cause delayed growth and skeletal deformities.”
Q is for quackery
So get food supplements… if you have a need for it.
But as senior pharmacist Serena Kon said in a Straits Times report, purchase off-the-shelf supplements from trusted sources. Ms Kon, who works at the Singapore General Hospital, also said “be vigilant in evaluating claims made by supplement vendors” as these products are not regulated by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA).
The HSA does not approve or license health supplements to see if they are effective before they are allowed to be sold on the market.
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it still may not be a duck. Advertisements for these products do not have to be approved by the HSA.
Watch out for quackery.