Media-made Antioxidantfear

Source - Scripps Howard News Service

29 Oct 2004

Antioxidant supplements, we were recently told and told and told, range from useless to slightly worse than strychnine. While some media outlets merely ran headlines like "Antioxidants Don't Fight Cancer," warned that "Vitamin Supplements May Boost Cancer Risk," while the London Daily Mail's headline blared: "The Deadly Vitamins." I saw NO headlines that weren't along these lines.

So should those taking antioxidants (me included) flush them _ or, better yet, start making funeral arrangements? Neither. The media frenzy was based on a single medical-journal report that, bad enough in itself, was merely part of headline-hunting hype that also included a spooky accompanying commentary and a sensationalist press release.

According to the Associated Press account, researchers in the British journal The Lancet, "Pooled the results of 20 years of research (in what's called a "meta-analysis") involving more than 170,000 people considered at high risk of developing gastrointestinal cancers. Antioxidant supplements investigated included vitamins A, C and E, as well as selenium, in a total of 14 trials."

In a statement, team leader Dr. Goran Bjelakovic boldly declared: "The antioxidant pills except selenium are useless for prevention of gastrointestinal cancers." Yet in the report itself the conclusion was simply that "antioxidant supplements might not be beneficial for cancer prevention." "Might not" doesn't equal "useless" in my book or yours. It's just more sensationalism.

If anything was useless, it was the Lancet report.

One problem is that, despite the AP's assertion, the longest study evaluated was only 12 years and some lasted just a year. Yet the massive laboratory evidence that antioxidants prevent cancer indicates they act by preventing mutations that lead to tumors. Since it takes an average of about 15 years for a tumor to be detected, it's inane to expect either positive or negative results from such short studies.

But what's with this "deadly" stuff? It's outrageous, says Jeffrey Blumberg, chief of the antioxidants research lab at Tufts University in Boston. For beginners, even The Spooky Commentary said that there would have been no statistically significant increase in deaths, "If the more appropriate random-effects meta-analysis had been used."

Worse, Blumberg told me, "Of the 14 studies, only six were used for mortality data. And of those six, only one drove the entire analysis." That one, from 1996, used beta carotene with persons at high risk of cancer because they were current or former smokers or had high exposure to asbestos from their jobs. Cancer risk actually increased for those taking the supplements.

But "The problem (was) partly the smoking, partly the beta carotene, and partly the oxygen-rich environment of the lungs," notes the prestigious Berkeley Wellness letter. In other words, the entire media fright fest was based on one study evaluating one supplement in a unique circumstance using methodology that even The Spooky Commentary said was wrong.

By deciding to include the beta carotene study, the Lancet researchers pre-determined their entire conclusion _ and the headlines.

On the other hand, the report admitted that one antioxidant, selenium, "showed significant beneficial effect on the incidence of gastrointestinal cancer." Doesn't it make sense then that other antioxidants might prevent cancer? We know that in petri dish and rodent studies, antioxidants can stop tumors in their tracks. Further, as Blumberg states, "Literally dozens and dozens of studies with antioxidant supplements show a reduction in the risk of a variety of diseases, though they're not statistically significant (due to their small size) so I don't say they prove anything; I just say they're suggestive."

People who consume large amounts of antioxidants in food have much lower rates of cancer, although it confuses things that there are many other nutrients in the food and that persons who take supplements are more likely to eat better and have healthier lifestyles in general.

This doesn't support giving antioxidants the flush, but rather continuing research to find which ones are most effective against what and in what combinations. If sensational stories cause people to stop popping their pills and prompt enough dropouts to terminate some of the many clinical trials now researching antioxidants, it is they which "may cause early death."

(Michael Fumento (Fumento[at] is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, and a syndicated columnist with Scripps Howard News Service.)