Friday, 2 December 2011

Taking Your Vitamins

by Linda from The Witches Kitchen

I saw an article this week about a study just published, that followed a sample of nearly 39,000 older American women all the way from 1986 till now, and came to the conclusion that "several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements may be associated with increased total mortality risk". Increased.

It's real science, done by a group at the University of Minnesota. And yet there are hundreds and hundreds of studies that show the disease preventative effect of a whole range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and major nutrients.

It seems they only work when they are in real food.

It's not a one off either. It led me on a bit of a research binge. A study of 161,808 participants over 8 years in the Women's Health Initiative clinical trials "provided convincing evidence that multivitamin use has little or no influence on the risk of common cancers, CVD [cardiovascular disease], or total mortality in postmenopausal women."

A study of 182,099 participants enrolled in the Multiethnic Cohort Study after 11 years of follow-up found "no associations were found between multivitamin use and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular diseases, or cancer".

And there's a batch of supporting studies of smaller groups.

So why do we spend such a fortune on multivitamins, fish oil capsules, and vitamin enriched food? Why do we go for the breakfast cereal with "added vitamins and minerals" over the plain old rolled oats? Why the bread with "added fibre"? When all the solid evidence is that if you eat a good balanced diet of real food, supplements won't do a thing, and if you don't, they won't do a thing either.

There's good data that Australians spend something like $2 billion a year - $2 billion - on complementary and alternative medicines. Some of it is real medicine, prescribed by a naturopath or someone competent, to treat a condition and there's plenty of evidence for the benefit of that. But the majority is vitamins and supplements people buy themselves, just to feel more secure.

At the same time, at least in Australia, the cost of living is a major political issue, with people stressing about the cost of food, and farmers up and down the Murray Darling river system squeezed by prices that leave them no margin for a long term view of landcare.

And maybe the two are, in a bizarre way, related. It's not a healthy relationship, but the more we worry that the food we are buying isn't the product of loving land care, the more we indulge in superstitious practices we just hope will somehow help.

If I could just get that $2 billion a year and invest it in the Murray Darling Basin Plan, and then in keeping the Liverpool Plains for growing muesli rather than coal seam gas, and then after that in protecting the Great Barrier Reef from fertilizer run off, maybe we would feel happier about the price of real food.