Supplements in the News

Making headlines by feeding worthless statistics to the news media

A group of Scandinavian and Korean academic researchers catapulted themselves into the spotlight this week by publishing a medical article about vitamin usage in women over 60. They did not do the clinical study themselves, but rather used data collected from an observational study being conducted by investigators at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere.

The academic group reported that those women in the study who were taking vitamin or mineral supplements had shorter lifespans than those who took no such supplements.1 The story was widely reported and misreported by the American news media, resulting in consternation among supplement users.

Some media journalists immediately realized that the study was probably a cheap ploy to get some media attention for the researchers involved. These journalists could see that the researchers actually had nothing valid to say about the safety or effectiveness of supplements. For example, David Katz of the Huffington Post wrote that for each such study, there is another showing no harm. He pointed out that this study was observational — the participants were simply asked whether they took supplements or not. There was no randomization into study groups because there was no placebo involved.2

No effort was made to determine whether the women who took the most supplements were those with a family history of chronic disease or with existing ailments that were not being successfully treated in other ways. Without such information there is no way to draw valid conclusions about the connection between supplement usage and survival. If, as seems likely, some of the participants were taking supplements in order to counteract serious medical problems, then a spurious correlation between supplement usage and mortality could show up in the statistics.

Furthermore, even if the risk of shortened lifespan reported by the researchers had been valid, the purported risk was quite small — much smaller than many other medical risks faced by women over 60.2

In short, this so-called “research” has been more successful at enhancing the fame and fortunes of the researchers than at contributing to the well-being of the public.