Presenting the bigger picture

Related tags Heart disease Nutrition

News earlier this month that taking vitamins was a waste of time in
combating cancer or heart disease was selectively reported and
failed to give consumers a balanced view, John Cordaro, president
of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, told

Earlier this month, scientists from Oxford University sent shock waves through the supplement industry after revealing that their five-year study​ had shown that vitamins C and E and beta-carotene had no significant benefit on fighting cancer or heart disease.

But, as John Cordaro​, president of the US-based Council for Responsible Nutrition​, told, it is not so much the findings of the research which are dangerous to the supplement industry as the way in which they were reported.

"We found that this study was reported widely in the UK and Canada in particular, and in both countries reporters chose to focus on the apparent negative aspects of the report,"​ Cordaro said. "The study seemed to pass unnoticed in the US, partly because the news broke around the 4 July, but also because reporters in any case preferred to focus on a different study highlighting the positive aspects of statin drugs."

"It is important to stress, therefore, that this study is just one of many which has looked at the effects of vitamins on diseases such as cancer and heart disease, many of which have shown potentially positive effects and which suggest that consuming generous amounts of antioxidants in the form of supplements is an effective way of staving off the onset of these problems."

The problem with the way in which the latest study had been reported, said Cordaro, was that the results had not been properly analysed before stories had been written, a common problem with scientific studies which are often embargoed for publication or difficult to read in their entirety before journalists' deadlines.

"Because of this, reporters failed to notice that the study focused on the effects of antioxidants in the secondary prevention of heart disease - i.e. treating people who have already contracted the disease - rather than their more widely used role in the primary treatment of heart disease - i.e. lowering the risk of contracting the disease in the first place. There is considerable evidence from other studies to show that they are very good at that."

A similar situation was found with the study's conclusions about antioxidants and cancer prevention. "This study lasted for five years, while the gestation period for cancer is 10 to 20 years, so the results of the research were unlikely to throw up anything positive about cancer prevention. There is plenty of evidence to show that antioxidants can prevent cancer when taken over a longer period and in sufficient doses."

The problem for Cordaro with this study is that the researchers clearly set out to try and show that antioxidants had a negative effect - essentially asking questions which were designed to have the answer no.

"Effectively, this research started from the idea that 'antioxidants are good at combating x, so why don't we see if they are good at fighting y and z as well'. This was always going to be difficult to prove, and just because they are not effective at fighting y and z does not, of course, negate their efficacy when it comes to x."

He dismissed claims by some conspiracy theorists that the study had been written by scientists in the pay of the major drug companies and who had therefore deliberately criticised supplements in order to highlight the apparent efficacy of the cholesterol-lowering statin drugs produced by these firms.

"The way the research was reported made it look like the study on vitamins and statins was one and the same, whereas in fact they were totally unrelated. I never believe these conspiracy theories, and if my doctor told me that I could reduce my cholesterol levels by taking statins, then I would - but it wouldn't make the supplements any less effective at what they do, or stop me from taking them!"

Cordaro said that while the initial wave of reports on the study had focused on the apparent negative aspects, the second wave had been more balanced, and highlighted the shortcomings of the study.

"It is difficult to design a study to ask the right questions, and these days of rapid communications mean that research is much more widely available to an increasingly clued-up public. That is why organisations such as the Council for Responsible Nutrition need to make sure we can help the public by putting the research into the right context.

"We like to think of ourselves as an 'honest broker' between the industry and the public, and I don't think the fact that we are funded by the supplement industry means we cannot do that effectively. Our scientific staff is unequalled, with experts who have worked at the FDA or the National Cancer Institute, for example, and whose reputations are beyond reproach."

He continued: "The studies we ourselves have published have been shown to be accurate and authoritative, and we have worked with the Codex Commission and the European Commission on numerous aspects regarding the safety and efficacy of supplements.

We will continue to act in the best interests of the public by presenting them with accurate, unbiased information about supplements - we have three major reports in the pipeline this year on supplements, botanicals and product safety - and this I believe will be the best way to ensure that the public does not miss out on the potentially life-saving benefits of supplements simply because one study is selectively reported in the news."

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