The Vitamin E Witch Hunt

January 01, 2004  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Scripps Howard News Service  ·  Nutrition

Nothing can replace a good diet, but conversely no diet can provide more than a tiny amount of vitamin E.

Less than two months ago I debunked a report in The Lancet medical journal claiming antioxidants slightly increase your 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. This report also stinks like a skunk set on "full spray." 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 to be the final word on the subject though both reports were, as the vitamin E one 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 in all. 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 with the report is that there have been far more than 19 vitamin E trials since 1993, and one way the pack was whittled down was by excluding 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 gallows.

Also, if "more is worse," why did the two studies that used the highest dose, 2,000 IUs per day, indicate fewer deaths among vitamin E users?

Another problem with declaring this report to be the final word on vitamin E is that while clinical trials are important, epidemiological studies cannot be ignored. Yet ignored they were.

Thus there was no reference to the 1996 one from the National Institute of Aging that followed 11,000 elderly persons for seven years and found the death rate for vitamin E users was a third that of non-users. Adding another antioxidant, vitamin C, cut fatalities even more.

The spirit of Matthew Hopkins lives on at Johns Hopkins.

A 1993 Harvard study of 40,000 male health professionals found those who took at least 100 IUs 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 versus 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. For one, some supplements are worthless while 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 towards 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 supplement 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 showing 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 products.