Vitamins don't stop heart disease or cancer, panel finds

Yellow vitamins of the b-50 vitamin. Purity First

Yellow vitamins of the b-50 vitamin. Purity First Health Products, Inc. Issued a nationwide recall of Healthy Life Chemistry B-50, Multi-Mineral and Vitamin C Products due to a potential health risk. (Aug 16, 2013). (Credit: Jeffrey Basinger)

Vitamin capsules, tablets and pills are not panaceas, and no clear evidence shows they provide protection against either heart disease or cancer, a government panel has concluded.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which published its final decision on vitamin supplements Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, did not veer from its preliminary opinion in last year's draft of the report.

Task force members reviewed reams of data from clinical trials conducted in recent years to decide whether dietary aids effectively staved off two of the country's biggest killers.


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They concluded not enough scientific evidence exists to support that vitamin consumption prevents heart disease or cancer.

Dr. Kevin Marzo, chief of cardiology at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, said he's pleased with the panel's decision and hopes the public will welcome the conclusion as an invitation to healthier diets.

"The lack of health benefits from vitamins doesn't seem surprising, and all the money that is invested in vitamins would be better spent on natural foods -- fruits and vegetables that are not laden with unhealthy ingredients, said Marzo, who was not a panelist.

Panel members examined research involving all of the alphabet vitamins -- A, B, C, D and E. With two, beta carotene, a form of vitamin A, and vitamin E, they cautioned the public against taking them because of possible health risks.

Vitamin E supplementation, according to the experts' report, carries no health benefits. Moreover, a variety of recent studies -- some controversial -- have shown an elevated risk of death among people who consumed high doses of the once widely touted nutrient.

Synthetic beta carotene, the panel concluded, is linked to lung cancer in certain vulnerable populations, primarily people already at escalated lung-cancer risk, such as smokers and former smokers.

The supplement industry's leading trade organization -- the Council for Responsible Nutrition in Washington, D.C. -- took the opportunity to rivet public attention on a key point: The report focused only on heart disease and cancer. U.S. vitamin makers sell to 150 million people and take in $30 billion annually.

"There are real-life reasons why people should take vitamins and why so many doctors recommend them," naturopath Duffy MacKay, a senior vice president with the council, said in a statement.

But Dr. Paul Offit of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, a critic of the supplement industry, said more hype than truth has centered on vitamin pills for decades. "We're talking about an essentially unregulated industry," Offit said.

"The advice I give my patients," said Dr. Michael LeFevre, co-chairman of the task force, "is the same advice my mother gave me: 'Eat your vegetables.' "

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