Back in 2011, I wrote a post for Simple Green Frugal about a study just published in a peer reviewed journal, that followed a sample of nearly 39,000 older American women all the way from 1986 till now, and came to the conclusion that “several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements may be associated with increased total mortality risk”. Increased.
This week I saw another study that raises the same questions – two papers in peer reviewed journals about how the Omega 3 fatty acid DHA in fish oils in fish help lower blood pressure, but DHA ethyl ester, the kind of Omega 3 DHA found in most fish oil pills, not only doesn’t work but takes you backwards, using up the binding sites that real DHA would have used and blocking them.
Both studies are real, peer reviewed science. And yet there are hundreds and hundreds of studies that show the disease preventative effect of a whole range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and major nutrients. It seems they only work when they are in real food.The original post back in 2011 led me on a bit of a research binge. A study of 161,808 participants over 8 years in the Women’s Health Initiative clinical trials “provided convincing evidence that multivitamin use has little or no influence on the risk of common cancers, CVD [cardiovascular disease], or total mortality in postmenopausal women.” A study of 182,099 participants enrolled in the Multiethnic Cohort Study after 11 years of follow-up found “no associations were found between multivitamin use and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular diseases, or cancer”. And there’s a batch of supporting studies of smaller groups.
So why do we spend such a fortune on multivitamins, fish oil capsules, and vitamin enriched food? Why do we go for the breakfast cereal with “added vitamins and minerals” over the plain old rolled oats? Why the bread with “added fibre”? When all the solid evidence is that if you eat a good balanced diet of real food, supplements won’t do a thing, and if you don’t, they won’t do a thing either.
There’s good data that Australians spend something like A$4 billion a year – $4 billion – on complementary and alternative medicines. Some of it is real medicine, prescribed by a naturopath or someone competent, to treat a condition and there’s plenty of evidence for the benefit of that. But the majority is vitamins and supplements people buy themselves, just to feel more secure.
At the same time, at least in Australia, the cost of living is a major political issue, with people stressing about the cost of food, and farmers squeezed by the big supermarkets by prices that leave them no margin for a long term view of landcare. We won’t pay what it really costs to produce real food, when there’s good scientific evidence that it keeps you healthy, but we will pay scammy amounts of money for industrially made supplements and pills, when there’s good science that it doesn’t work. Duh!
And maybe the two are, in an unhealthy way, related. The more we worry that the food we are buying isn’t real, isn’t healthy whole food produced with care for people and the environment, the more we indulge in superstitious practices we just hope will somehow help.
If I could just get that $4 billion a year and invest it in the Murray Darling Basin Plan, and then in keeping the Liverpool Plains for growing muesli rather than coal seam gas, and then after that in protecting marine environments from fertilizer run off, maybe we would feel happier about the price of real food.