Last week a surprising report came out of a study which claimed that vitamin supplements are dangerous to women in old age. However, should the statistics be viewed with suspicion?
Many respected news authorities reported the story, but now a few figures within the scientific community are questioning the reliability of the findings, with claims that the study was a cynical exercise funded by medicine producers who are anti-vitamin in their outlook.
So what is the truth?
Thankfully, the NHS runs a service called Behind the Headlines. It is very useful for checking the facts behind the health scares which seem to be published on an almost daily basis.
So what’s the truth?
First of all the NHS confirm that it is impossible to conclude from the study that vitamins kill. No one has ever died from taking too many vitamins.
Moreover, because the study was done on the basis of a questionnaire, the research could not account for all the factors which contributed to the mortality of the women and this also produced conflicting results. For example, those who ate more fruit and veg or already had illnesses complicated the findings in a way which meant that surveying the effect of vitamin supplements was, at best, vague.
The NHS advises that most vitamins can be gained from a balanced diet, but there are times when dietary supplements can be beneficial (particularly in groups who are at risk of vitamin deficiencies for reasons of illness or lifestyle). High doses of vitamins can have side effects but if a doctor has advised that you take supplements you should not stop doing so.
Can we trust the study at all?
Interestingly, the study was able to repeat findings that iron and calcium supplementation was consistent with higher mortality, but nothing can be proved until there are controlled tests on the safety of vitamin supplements.
Dr Glenys Jones, a Medical Research Council nutritionist, says: “Research in this area to date has had inconsistent findings, and what is needed to determine whether supplement use actually causes an alteration of mortality rate is a number of well-controlled intervention studies that can then be brought together and reviewed.”