This is a statement that’s going to rattle a few vitamin manufacturers I’m sure. But as usual with any statement of this type, it’s important to read what the research is really telling you. In a review of 20 years of studies on supplemental vitamin E, beta carotene and folic acid, Dr Tim Byers, of the University of Colorado Cancer Centre, and his team of researchers found that those who were taking high doses of supplements had a higher incidence of cancer than those who were unsupplemented. This is important stuff if you use food supplements, and as someone who personally recommends whole-food supplementation, it’s my duty to allay some fears.
In a study published in 2006 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that women who had a high intake of folic acid supplements had a 19 percent greater risk of breast cancerthan those who did not take such supplements. Moreover, women who had the highest levels of folate, the water-soluble form of folic acid, in their blood had a 32 percent greater risk of breast cancer than those who had the lowest levels.
The reason that research was commenced on supplements is because of the correlation between high fruit and vegetable consumption and lower incidences of cancers of many different types. Scientists tend to like looking for specific things in fruit and vegetables, such as for example certain antioxidants. They then isolate them, concentrate them, and, often in conjunction with the pharmaceutical industry, stick them in a pill and expect them to do the same thing as eating the foods that are high in these nutrients. Time after time, this has proven to be incorrect, but the madness continues. In several of the trials, there was an increase in the cancer rates in the groups taking supplements of beta carotene, folic acid and vitamin E.
One of the most famous of these studies was conducted in Finland on male smokers who were supplemented with beta carotene to try to reduce their incidence of self-induced lung cancer. The 10 year trial was halted at year 8 because the researchers were told: “you’re killing patients”. The supplemented group had an 18 percent increase in lung cancer rates.
Another study of more than 35,000 men, published in 2011 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that taking high-dose vitamin E supplements was linked to a 17 percent increase in cancer risk over seven to 12 years.
So, should we ditch the supplements? As always, my answer would be “it depends”. There is a vast difference between most vitamin supplements and the type that I recommend, which are whole-food derived. Absolutely, we should totally avoid synthetic supplements with only a handful of ingredients. They are useless at best and harmful at worst. What we need are supplements that have been made from whole fruit and vegetables, non heat-treated and minimally processed.
The supplements should contain all of its food ingredients in natural form, so that the whole orchestration of antioxidants and phytonutrients is present. The supplement should also contain a full spectrum of colours, since each colour relates to a specific bodily benefit. We’ve all heard of beta carotene, but were you aware that there are over 40 carotenoid pigments, and we need all of them? And that’s just one antioxidant group. There are well over 20,000 antioxidants and phytonutrients in plants. We need all of them. To think that beta carotene or any other single isolated nutrient from this spectrum is all we need, continues to demonstrate the limited thinking patterns of humans.
It must be very exciting to isolate a new antioxidant from food and marvel at its potential benefits if taken in isolation. Thankfully, Dr Tim Byers and his researchers have just given us this vital information about increased cancer rates when taking this approach. I do hope that the public will start to heed these warnings and consider using only whole-food derived supplements, which have been scientifically proven to have beneficial health effects.
For more information on the questions to ask of supplement manufacturers, please see my blog post on this subject here.