Gates: Recognize danger in dietary supplements


Matt Gates, Columnist

Research released this month found antioxidants may protect cancer cells from the body’s defenses, increasing one’s risk of developing cancer.

This news comes as a shock to many who have been hearing for years that antioxidants prevent cancer. Antioxidant supplements, including beta-carotene, vitamin A and vitamin E are marketed for a variety of purposes, such as strengthening the immune system and aiding weight loss. Indeed, more than half of all Americans take dietary supplements. One set of trials actually found that antioxidants may slightly increase a person’s risk of death. While ignoring the findings of medical science is a formula for disaster, we should nevertheless be more careful not to believe everything we read about our bodies.

One form of dietary supplement I see widely used at Northwestern and offered in various C-stores on campus is vitamin C. The aforementioned study found that vitamin C supplements are harmless but useless, offering no benefit. Given that colleges are notorious breeding grounds for germs, it is easy to understand why one would choose to take a supplement advertised to prevent sickness.

After spending the entirety of my freshman Fall Quarter being either sick or on antibiotics, I started taking Airshield, a habit I picked up from many of my hallmates. It is similar to products like Airborne and Emergen-C and is sold in the C-stores on campus. Airshield advertises that it “supports your immune system,” but the fine-print statement notes that it “has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration” and that it “is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

It seems contradictory to say both that a product will bolster one’s immune system and that it is not intended to prevent illness. So why do I take something that is not proven to help me? I guess because I think even if it doesn’t help, it probably won’t hurt.

According to Dr. George Blackburn, chief of the Nutrition/Metabolism Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, research shows that vitamin C dietary supplements like Airshield probably are not effective in maintaining health. Blackburn believes that rest, fluids and a healthy diet are more likely to provide relief.

Some supplements can even be dangerous, especially those not approved by the FDA. For example, the supplement bitter orange, intended to help with weight loss and treat nasal congestion and allergies, can actually result in fainting, heart problems (including heart attack) and death.

Supplements for weight-loss that claim to be “all-natural” can actually contain artificial drugs. For example, in 2009, the FDA found that the weight-loss capsule StarCaps, which advertised that the natural papaya fruit contributed to weight-loss, actually contained bumetanide, a potent pharmaceutical. It is important to understand that “all-natural” does not necessarily equate to safety.

Because many people do not get all of their recommended vitamins from their diet, some medical professionals do advocate the use of some dietary supplements. However, we should not overuse them. Dietary supplements are appealing, but consumers should not assume that all supplements are as safe and effective as they are advertised to be.

Matt Gates is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].