Warning: A “Natural” Fetish is Harmful to Your Health

By Keith Kloor | December 23, 2013 8:35 am

Natural prod

Last week an expert panel of physicians advised Americans to “stop wasting money” on multivitamins:

We believe that the case is closed— supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful. These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.

Good luck with that. As the New York Times notes,

Demand for vitamin and mineral supplements has grown markedly in recent years, with domestic sales totaling some $30 billion in 2011.

(It’s a big business in the UK, too.)

Naturally (pun intended), the Natural Products Association, the industry trade group for this modern-day snake oil, was none too happy, insisting that dietary supplements “are overwhelmingly safe.” Not that they would know, of course, since the vast majority of the products are unregulated. As for their safety, the Times ran a front page piece on this issue yesterday: 

Dietary supplements account for nearly 20 percent of drug-related liver injuries that turn up in hospitals, up from 7 percent a decade ago, according to an analysis by a national network of liver specialists. The research included only the most severe cases of liver damage referred to a representative group of hospitals around the country, and the investigators said they were undercounting the actual number of cases.

While many patients recover once they stop taking the supplements and receive treatment, a few require liver transplants or die because of liver failure. Naïve teenagers are not the only consumers at risk, the researchers said. Many are middle-aged women who turn to dietary supplements that promise to burn fat or speed up weight loss.

“It’s really the Wild West,” said Dr. Herbert L. Bonkovsky, the director of the liver, digestive and metabolic disorders laboratory at Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C. “When people buy these dietary supplements, it’s anybody’s guess as to what they’re getting.”

Gee, so much for that precautionary principle I keep hearing about from organic, anti-GMO folks. Speaking of, where are the consumer watchdogs and health advocates who are so obsessed with genetically modified foods? Surely, this Wild West of health products would be of concern to them?

Not surprisingly, the Natural Products Association has jumped aboard the GMO labeling movement:

This is really very simple – people have a right to know what’s in their food.

People also have a right to know if pills branded as “natural” might destroy their insides.

As the Times piece says,

unlike prescription drugs, which are tightly regulated, dietary supplements typically carry no information about side effects. Consumers assume they have been studied and tested, Dr. Bonkovsky said. But that is rarely the case. “There is this belief that if something is natural, then it must be safe and it must be good,” he said.

Gee, I wonder where consumers get that idea from?

Marc Gunther explains it well and also suggests:

The challenge for all of us is to get beyond the simple dichotomies that characterize so much conversation around food. Natural vs. processed. Local vs. global. Small vs. big. Genetically-modified vs. conventionally bred. Organic vs. everything else.

I’m all for that. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for the champions in the Food Movement to take on the existing fuzzy labels, dubious health claims and very real dangers of the “natural” food products industry.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: naturalists, organic food, select
  • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

    The article you cite at the top contains the following hedge in its opening paragraph. “They conclude that MOST mineral and vitamin supplements have no clear benefit.” (Emphasis mine.) This post closes with the idea that we should look past false dichotomies (an idea which I wholeheartedly agree with), but it seems to opens with that which it condemns.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      I think the editorial speaks for itself. What part of “stop wasting money” in it wasn’t clear to you?

      • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

        It’s very clear, but the article states “most” not “all,” and it apparently (I don’t have access) also states that pregnant women should take Folic acid. (Source: http://m.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/experts-decisive-against-multivitamins-stop-wasting-money/282440/) It appears that they’ve oversimplified their position in the title.

        • J M

          In fact, in 1996 FDA ruled that folic acid must be added to bread, flour, pasta, rice etc. because it prevents certain birth defects during pregnancy. Any woman on a normal diet gets enough folic acid in the US.

          • sixofone

            What if the pregnant woman has a gluten allergy and has forgone wheat products such as breads with folic acid added thanks to the geniuses down at the FDA offices ? Should she not supplement with folic acid? And what on earth are you talking about when you say “any woman on a normal diet”?

  • mem_somerville

    You mean, like this champion of labeling?

    Another big name in the industry, Joseph Mercola, who has made millions hawking “health products” and other supplements–Mercola was one of the primary financial backers of the failed GMO labeling bill initiative in California and is now pouring money to generate support for Washington state’s bill–has been almost apoplectic in his opposition to mandatory labeling of the products he sells. He calls the legislation “ridiculous,” asserting that the “bill threatens the supplement
    industry by granting the FDA more power to regulate supplements as if
    they were drugs, effectively putting supplement companies out of
    business.”

    http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/08/13/gmo-labeling-proponents-now-fighting-their-own-labeling-legislation/#.UrhGL7SLD9M

    • Loren Eaton

      Hypocrisy…thy name is Mercola!!! Totally amazing.

      • Matthew Slyfield

        Politics…thy name is hypocrisy.

  • Buddy199

    It’s good to see the expert panel of physicians advise Americans to “stop wasting money” on misuse of multivitamins. It would be even nicer if they also advised against the misuse of pharmaceuticals. Sure, if you suffer from diabetes or cystic fibrosis no rational person would suggest you stop taking your meds and self-treat with crystals. But the sloppy, over-diagnosis and attendant over-medication of ADHD, to cite just one example, is a national scandal on a far greater scale than nutritional abuse. In fact, over-medicating for every one of life’s minor aches and pains is a peculiar and unhealthy American phenomenon.

    • harrywr2

      Sadly, I am aware of at least one parent that ‘shopped’ pediatricians until she found one that diagnosed her son with ADHD.

      There are a lot of problems related to children whose parents have ‘lost control of them’. I would agree that medicating the child is a poor choice among really ugly choices, but an argument can be made that it at least some cases it is the least harmful choice.

  • Loren Eaton

    ‘The challenge for all of us is to get beyond the simple dichotomies that characterize so much conversation around food. Natural vs. processed. Local vs. global. Small vs. big. Genetically-modified vs. conventionally bred. Organic vs. everything else.’
    I agree. Things are what they are regardless of how we classify them or who makes them. I fear that a lot of this is marketing, pointing out that one product is fundamentally different than another based simply on classification.

  • AlisonCummins

    There seems to be a certain among of bait-and-switch happening here. Garcinia cambogia is not a multivitamin.

    Vitamin and mineral supplements supplement the diet with required micronutrients and macrominerals. Vitamin C may not be required in pill form by most people but it’s unlikely to be harmful. The usual one-a-day multivitamin-mineral complexes are unlikely to contain dangerous amounts of anything, (With the “there is enough iron in this package to seriously harm a child” exception.)

    Anything else sold as a “supplement” is either a drug or a placebo, and untested. It’s one thing to say that one-a-day multivitamins are a waste of money; it’s quite another to say that weight-loss drugs can damage your liver. These are two different categories of harm.

  • Matthew Slyfield

    “We believe that the case is closed— supplementing the diet of
    well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no
    clear benefit and might even be harmful.”

    What about the not so well nourished, those with unbalanced diets? What is the percentage of the US population with a balanced vs unbalanced diet?

    The quoted statement is less than useful.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Paul Chernick

    Multi-vitamins are not necessarily natural, and this post attempts to attack any interest in avoiding additives and GMOs. If multi-vitamins don’t work, they don’t work. That does not make Roundup good for you. Or neo-nicotinoids. Or chicken washed in its own feces and dosed with antibiotics.

    How did this nasty person get onto the blogs of a responsible magazine like Discover?

    • Thomas Fuller

      By being an excellent blogger, a good journalist and by exposing hypocrisy amongst some sacred cow organizations. How did you get your job?

      By the way, I’ve been taking vitamins for decades. Guess I’ll actually have to think about that…

  • Pit Boss

    The author is being disingenuous here. While I’ve never taken vitamin supplements, they’re just that — supplements the consumer chooses to take. We’re not even told that we’re consuming GMOs and the companies behind them want to keep it that way. That’s a pretty significant difference you’re choosing to ignore.

  • Billy Joel Jenkins

    Regarding the natural and organic phase, well I do look for those. We obviously have an antibiotic problem with “superbugs” evolving to combat our over usage of antibiotic and antibacterial substances. Not to mention, I do support companies that really are trying to raise fruits and vegetables that aren’t constantly bombarded in pesticides and whatnot.

    • Farmer Guy

      I would suggest to stop eating produce altogether then, because every plant produces its own pesticides.

    • Norbrook

      Um… apparently you don’t realize that organic farmers can (and do) use pesticides.
      http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~lhom/organictext.html

  • Paul Shipley

    Sooner they regulate supplements the better. In Australia a consumer group and not a government body took action against a company because they had little or none of the ingredients that they were supposed to have.

    • sixofone

      You forgot to plagerize the link when you copy and pasted your comment directly from friv 2 friv 3 friv 4.

      • Paul Shipley

        No this was common knowledge in the general media. Company lost almost all its value on the ASX

  • Ryan111

    This seems to be another case of misconception as to the purpose of multivitamins. While it’s true that mega dosing on vitamins will not cure or prevent any diseases, the fact remains that most people are not, by any measure, “well-nourished” to the extent that they are receiving all the essential micronutrients required by the body.

    As far as what to expect: Always look for USP verified seal, it expires after 1 year and requires re-testing of the product again to verify the formula contents and whether it will actually dissolve fast enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream. USP is regulated by the FDA, so while the FDA does not regulate supplements directly, those who submit for USP verification are subject to the same standards of testing. Vegetarians in particular are missing critical micronutrients in their diet, and a multivitamin helps to supplement their diet with those missing vitamins and minerals. Very few people are actually receiving every possible nutrient they need from their diet, and the stress alone from such meticulous planning would be equally unhealthy.

    So unless you regularly get clinical assessments, you won’t possibly know whether or not you are receiving optimal levels of nutrients in your diet; hence taking a USP verified multivitamin can help to ensure that you receive any critical micronutrients that your body may be missing, and that they’re at optimal levels.

  • Jonathan

    Your editorial is lacking. The studies recommending against vitamins were using “undisclosed dosages of a multivitamin.” This ambiguity in itself is anything BUT scientific. The FDA also has used the recommended dosages of vitamins at the level to prevent disease not to encourage longevity. These low end dosage requirements allowed for the research to be done and obviously return inconclusive results. Also the studies had many participants drop out mid-study. These studies proved nothing because they were conducted in a very unscientific manner. Stop feeding the hype on things you are not qualified to comprehend.

  • http://www.friv2friv3friv4.com/ friv 2 friv 3 friv 4

    Sooner they regulate supplements the better. In Australia a consumer
    group and not a government body took action against a company because
    they had little or none of the ingredients that they were supposed to
    have. http://www.friv2friv3friv4.com/

  • http://www.friv2game.org/ friv2game

    Hi. i am interesting about natural. you should protection natural.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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