Horizon: Supplements-Miracle or Myth?

Did you see BBC’s Horizon’s programme last week entitled  ‘Vitamin Pills – Miracle or Myth?’ What a piece of unscientific propaganda that was. I knew every study they referred to, including the first one going back to 1987 on the effects of multivitamins on IQ, because I helped design it. In essence, the programme made three claims, and all three are false.


False Claim 1 We get (almost) all the nutrients we need

The programme said that we get all the nutrients we need from diet because our average intake matches government minimum recommendations – except iron and vitamin D. For example, they analysed a person’s diet and found 30mg of vitamin C, claiming that we don’t ‘need’ more than 40mg. Actually, the RDA (ridiculous dietary arbitrary) is 80mg, but the point is that none of these levels is optimal. The optimal intake of vitamin C is circa 500mg. That is what, for example, equates to lowest risk of heart disease. I wrote about this, referring key studies in Newsletter 82.

It ignores, for example, the widespread shortfall of B12, needed in much larger quantities later in age in the many who don’t absorb it so well. Oxford University’s research  show two in five over 61 have insufficient B12 to prevent brain shrinkage. The same has recently been shown in Ireland .

Read my book The Optimum Nutrition Bible if you don’t understand the difference between ‘RDA’ and optimal for disease  prevention and good health.

False Claim 2: Multivitamins don’t raise IQ.

The programme focussed on our 1987 study that raised children’s non-verbal IQ by 7 points more than placebo. This study was dismissed by the programme on the basis of a clip from a TV show in which the presenter said that an expert (unnamed) said it had ‘flawed methodology’? Really? Like what? I know of no such flaws in this study. Show me.  None were eluded to in the programme.[Historical note: the Horizon producer in 1987 who showed the IQ boosting effects of multivitamins in our trial lost his job for going against the anti-supplement agenda that is in-built in Horizon’s DNA.]

False claim 3: Antioxidants don’t work and may increase risk of death.

I did a chapter on this in Food is Better Medicine Than Drugs . Horizon started with the infamous study by the National Cancer Institute in 1996 which gave smokers betacarotene and reported a 28 per cent increased incidence in lung cancer in those who continued to smoke [G. Omenn et al., ‘The Beta-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET)’, New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 334, 1996, pp.1150–5.] The actual figures were 50 cancer cases out of some 10,000 in the placebo group and 65 cases out of 10,000 among those getting betacarotene.

Put another way, this means that for every five cases of cancer out of a thousand people taking the placebo there were 6.5 cases out of a thousand among those taking the beta-carotene supplement. And remember, both groups involved people who had smoked for years and probably had undetected cancer before starting the trial. The study also found that among those who gave up smoking during the trial and took beta-carotene, there were 20 per cent fewer cases of lung cancer, a finding Horizon’s Dr Yeo conveniently omitted to mention.

Then there’s an interview with Prof Ristow, whose much criticised study found antioxidants given to healthy exercising people (and also worms) decreased instead of increasing insulin sensitivity. What wasn’t mentioned was that there are many good studies showing benefits of antioxidant use during exercise on decreasing markers of oxidative stress and aging. Antioxidant use has been shown to decrease DNA damage, lipid peroxidation, and protein oxidation following exercise. The combination of antioxidants and exercise has also been shown to delay brain aging, a phenomenon also proposed to be related to oxidative stress. Ristow reported that antioxidant supplementation blocked the induction of antioxidant enzymes in the body. However, the supplemental antioxidants may have negated the need for up-regulation of endogenous antioxidants. See here for a full critique.

Then they interviewed Danish researcher Dr Gluud whose heavily criticised meta-analysis hatchet job in 2007, analysed 66 antioxidant studies and found no decrease in mortality, and possibly a small increase. He did happen to exclude 400 studies in which no deaths were reported. This was one of several major problems with this study, so the same 66 studies were re-analysed by another group of researchers finding, instead, that 36 percent of the trials showed a positive outcome or that the antioxidant supplements were beneficial, 60 percent had a null outcome, while only four percent found negative outcome. Remember the Danes tried to ban Marmite – they don’t like vitamins.

That’s about it in terms of so-called evidence against supplements. What really gets my goat is that this clearly biased and selective reporting is done under the guise of ‘vitamin supplements should be subject to the same rigorous science that drugs are’ – as if drugs are subject to rigorous objective science. Talk about a pot calling a kettle black, when any semblance of science in this programme is clearly lacking.

They then focussed in on the ‘claims’ supplement manufacturers make, some being had up by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). That happens because they are not allowed to tell the truth – if there is evidence that a vitamin does prevent or treat a disease you cannot say so because it’s against the medicines law – a law designed to keep big pharma making money. I, for example, have been done by the ASA for saying you can’t get enough vitamin D during the winter without supplementation, and elderly people need to supplement B12.. It’s true but illegal. When the goverment announced, two years ago, that we should all supplement vitamin D in the winter, they were contravening ASA rules which state that you can imply that well balanced diet does’nt give you everything you need..

It is a shame that the BBC/Horizon have stooped so low but not surprising. I’ve had first hand experience, when being interviewed by them, that the script is pre-written and they just hunt for the right quotes, albeit taken out of context, extracting sections of recorded sentences to make their anti-supplement point. As a consequence, my condition of interview is that the programme only uses whole sentences, or let me see what they wish to use, as a condition of me giving them the right to use my interviewed content. I prefer live interviews for this reason. This isn’t investigative journalism with integrity. It is dirty sensationalist propoganda.. Nor are any of these points new. The studies used are between 10 and 40 years old.