Antioxidants Can Kill You?

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008


The Council for Responsible Nutrition (I’ve meet these dudes, they rock) are challenging a recent study that questions the health benefits of antioxidants.

Maybe you’ve heard of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark that examined previous studies and the effects of vitamins and antioxidants on healthy people and those who had various diseases?  They published this huge study under the sponsorship of the Cochrane Collaboration.

The authors concluded: “We found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary prevention. Vitamin A, beta-carotene, and vitamin E may increase mortality. Future randomized trials could evaluate the potential effects of vitamin C and selenium for primary and secondary prevention.”

“Such trials should be closely monitored for potential harmful effects. Antioxidant supplements need to be considered medicinal products and should undergo sufficient evaluation before marketing.”

That prompted the CRN to respond.

“Antioxidant supplements are certainly not meant to be magic bullets and should not realistically be expected to undo a lifetime of unhealthy habits,” said Andrew Shao, Ph.D., vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs, for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the leading trade association for the dietary supplement industry. “However, when used properly, in combination with eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, not smoking, etc., antioxidant supplements can play an important role in maintaining and promoting overall health.”

Good job Andrew Shao.  I’ve actually worked out with this guy, he’s a beast but I don’t think he can keep up with me on the front squats.  He’s also very educated and knowledgeable.  He tends to have an open mind and is fact based.  Something this industry desperately needs to make sure the information flowing from both sides (health organizations and dietary supplement companies is within reason).

“With nearly 750 studies to choose from, it’s interesting that they chose to include only 67 studies—less than nine percent of the total clinical trials on antioxidants that are available. Moreover, the possible 750 clinical trials do not even account for other sources of evidence, such as observational studies, which were not considered by the authors at all.   It is their exclusions, not the inclusions, where the fault lies.” said John Hathcock, Ph.D., senior vice president, scientific and international affairs, CRN.

Hummm… so you have 750 studies to pick and you only pick the 67 or 9% that support the conclusion you want to make?  Sounds biased already.

Furthermore, they excluded all studies—405 of them—that reported no deaths.

A lot of fitness sites are picking up on this but as with anything, you must look at how the data is prepared, any biased the study may want to prove and why they would exclude valid research?  I kept thinking of this as I read the study… “It is their exclusions, not the inclusions, where the fault lies.”

“It really comes down to whether or not this meta-analysis should mean anything to consumers or scientists,” says Dr. Shao.   “And from a practical standpoint, it doesn’t mean much.   We maintain that healthy consumers who are using antioxidant supplements in the manner that they were meant to be used—as complements to, not in place of—other healthy lifestyle habits, can continue to feel confident in the benefits these supplements provide.   For those consumers who are seriously ill with cancer, heart disease, etc., they should talk with their doctor about everything they put into their bodies. I know that I will continue to take my antioxidant supplements and will continue to encourage my family, friends and colleagues to do so as well.   This study won’t change that.”

If I have 10 married people and I want to prove marriage works.  Then if I exclude the 5 people who are divorced, then I can now prove with my remaining participants that marriage indeed, works.  That to me is not valid.  You can’t exclude data that fits the criteria but doesn’t fit your pre-determined outcome.

I do take a regular multi-vitamin in addition to a healthy diet.  I think of it more of an insurance policy and to me, as a consumer, this study doesn’t mean much except to scare people into believing something when the research may not actually prove that to be the case.

Your comments are more than welcome!

1 Bjelakovic G, Nikolova D, Gluud LL, et al. Antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in healthy participants and patients with various diseases. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD007176. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD007176.

The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), founded in 1973 and based in Washington, D.C., is the leading trade association representing dietary supplement industry ingredient suppliers and manufacturers. CRN members adhere to a strong code of ethics and manufacture dietary supplements to high quality standards under good manufacturing practices.

Photo of a the vitamins by Selva. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Tags: , , ,