The rationale for the utility of supplements is sketchy at best. Various studies over the years have failed to show any added benefits for humans by adding dietary supplements or vitamins. We at the American Council on Science and Health have voiced our objections to the use of dietary supplements and vitamins as miracle cures in the past; you can find our articles here. [And we famously took Dr. Oz to task for his disdain for sound science and false claims on 'miracle' drugs like Garcinia Cambogia, or coffee-bean extract.]
But it seems that officials at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have remained unconvinced even after decades and over a billion dollars in spending that have accomplished little. Last month, they awarded $35 million to five research centers to study the safety and effects of dietary supplements, fish oil, and probiotics, among others. The joint venture between NIH's Office of Dietary Supplements and National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health (formerly the rightly maligned National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) will focus on some of the top 100 supplements consumed in the U.S., including black cohosh, grape seed extract, hops, milk thistle, resveratrol, licorice, and valerian. Despite any evidence they do much, nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults use supplements like fish oil/omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics.
Natural products have a long and impressive history as sources of medicine and as important biological research tools, said Josephine Briggs, M.D., NCCIH director.
Except we are not impressed. Let us explain:
Previous studies on dietary supplements all have one thing in common: they all failed to show that the supplements in question work.
One of the supplements slated for research, Resveratrol an antioxidant compound found in grapes, has already been studied for its supposed anti-aging benefits, reduction in inflammation, and cancer prevention, among other claims. It failed to prove an effect for all of the above. This is no surprise to anyone who has stayed on top of news on dietary supplements that haven't quite cut it in the research field.
When it comes to Vitamin C and cancer prevention, large clinical trials have shown that large doses of the supplement--touted by Linus Pauling and his followers for decades--do not have any positive effect on cancer rates. In fact, the vitamin can do more harm than good.
The latest trend of urging men to eat tomatoes to prevent prostate cancer is also not evidence-based. Lycopene, the nutrient that gives tomatoes and other foods their red color, kills prostate cancer cells in a Petri dish but human studies have shown mixed results.
Though there are lots of worthy research projects that could benefit from the $120 million the NIH spend on alternative medicines annually, the upside is that perhaps another study will more shortcomings in dietary supplements. If the government spends enough, and no benefit is shown while people keep being poisoned, perhaps we can get reform of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which allows these products to exploit consumers by using weasel language such as "supports immune health" or "helps promote digestive health."