Is the Vitamin Industry Fueling Potentially Dangerous Misconceptions?


It's widely believed that vitamins are beneficial. But anything in excess can be harmful, and vitamins are no exception.

At the forefront of a recent push against the $27 billion vitamin and dietary supplement industry is Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Offit warns the booming market is misleading consumers, who may be jeopardizing their health.

“Large quantities of vitamins A, E, beta carotene, selenium, those sorts of things, can increase your risk of cancer, increase your risk of heart disease and shorten your life,” Offit told CBS Philadelphia.

Offit recently published a book that takes a critical look at the unregulated and sometimes highly extolled field of alternative medicine: Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.

"I think that alternative medicine is often given a free pass," he told CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. "I think we should hold alternative medicine to the same standard that we hold conventional medicine. It lives under this sort of untouchable halo. I think we should be a little more skeptical."

But its not new news that excessive consumption of vitamins can be detrimental.

For instance, in the 1996, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that monitored 18,000 people who were at increased risk of lung cancer due to asbestos exposure or smoking. They were each given a combination of vitamin A and beta carotene, or a placebo. But when investigators discovered that the risk of death from lung cancer for those who took the vitamins was 46 percent higher than those who took the placebo, they immediately halted the study, Offit explains in a The New York Times op-ed.

And just last year, a Cochrane review of multiple studies revealed antioxidant supplements, like beta carotene and vitamin E, as well as higher doses of vitamin A, may actually increase mortality. The authors concluded that, like conventional medicine, antioxidant supplements should undergo sufficient evaluation before marketing.