Vitamin E supplements ineffective?

Fresh Coat of Paint

Over the past couple of years, a handful of ridiculously flawed studies have found vitamin E supplements to be ineffective and even (brace yourself!) dangerous. The result: public perception of the vitamin has taken a beating.

Obviously it’s time for an extreme makeover – vitamin E edition.

One bad study

Earlier this month, the American Oil Chemists Society (AOCS) annual meeting featured a symposium in which several prominent scientists defended the honor of vitamin E.

It’s too bad that a nutrient with such a large body of evidence proving its usefulness would even need defending. But in the wake of a recent ABC Evening News report that highlighted a couple of negative vitamin E studies and completely ignored the scores of positive studies, public perception of the vitamin is at an all-time low. According to NutraIngredients, the two leading suppliers of vitamin E in the U.S. report that sales of the vitamin have dropped off about 40 percent.

Most of vitamin E’s image problem can be traced to one bad study: the now infamous Johns Hopkins research that appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine about a year and a half ago. As noted at the AOCS symposium, the Hopkins team conducted a meta-analysis of 19 vitamin E studies and concluded that more than 400 IU per day may slightly increase the risk of death.

Which is absolutely preposterous.

Commenting on the study in the e-Alert “The Purest Bunk” (11/15/04), HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., noted that the Hopkins conclusion “flies in the face of decades of research, using doses up to 2,400 IU.” And a representative for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) added that it was inappropriate for the researchers to draw conclusions for the entire population based on studies of subjects who were “already at grave risk with existing diseases including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and kidney failure.”

But never mind these glaring flaws – the mainstream media certainly didn’t mind them! The AOCS moderator, University of Arizona professor Ronald Watson, Ph.D., specifically cited “poor journalism” as a key factor in discouraging consumers “from taking advantage of this beneficial nutrient.”

Form & function

This can’t be said often enough: When vitamin E is evaluated, the form of the vitamin is crucial. Too often we’ve seen vitamin E intervention studies (including some in the Hopkins research) that used a synthetic form or an inferior form of the vitamin. Dr. Spreen: “No one should be taking the synthetic form of the nutrient (dl-alpha tocopherol) – it should be d-alpha tocopherol at least. Even better is to take ‘mixed’ tocopherols (alpha, beta, delta, gamma). Also, vitamin E functions better when it’s mixed with selenium.”

It’s SO SIMPLE! As with all vitamins, there are different forms. Use the wrong form and you get poor results. Use the proper form and you get good results.

Back on track

Let’s complete vitamin E’s makeover by addressing an e-mail I recently received from an HSI member named J.L.: “Is there any truth to a recent article about anyone taking 50 IUs of vitamin E is at greater risk for a stroke?”

J.L. didn’t include specific information from the article, and I haven’t been able to pinpoint any studies with those results, so we’ll have to assume that the study in question either: A) examined subjects already at risk of a stroke, and/or B) used an ineffective or synthetic form of the vitamin.

Of course, we should never “assume,” so let’s go back a few years to a time when vitamin E still looked pretty spiffy.

In a 1993 Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers examined eight years of medical records for more than 87,000 women between the ages of 34 and 59. At the outset of the study, none of the subjects had been diagnosed with either cardiovascular disease or cancer.

The results: Women who took vitamin E supplements (at least 100 IU daily) for two years or more reduced their heart disease risk by more than 40 percent compared to women who didn’t take E supplements. And in this same group, risk of ischemic stroke was reduced by nearly 30 percent. In the lowest-risk group, the average intake was 200 IU per day.

There’s your makeover, Vitamin E. In spite of all the undeserved hits you’ve been taking, you look MAHvelous!

“Vitamin E Symposium Reacts to Negative Press” NutraIngredients USA, 5/12/06,
“Meta-Analysis: High-Dosage Vitamin E Supplementation May Increase All-Cause Mortality” Annals of Internal Medicine, Vo. 142, No. 1, 1/4/05,
“Vitamin E Consumption and the Risk of Coronary Disease in Women” New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 328, No. 20, 5/20/93,