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Antioxidants - Potentially harmful?

In a Kingdom Far Away

What exactly is a “new scientist”?

Maybe she’s a scientist who sees the science she wants to see, and ignores the science that doesn’t square up with her hypothesis.

The “she” in this case is Dr. Lisa Melton who recently contributed an article to New Scientist magazine. And the title of her article tells you exactly what to expect: “The Antioxidant Myth: A Medical Fairy Tale”

Yes, it’s time for antioxidant supplements to take another beating with “proof” that they’re ineffective, and “may even be harmful.” (Cue the spooky organ music and rumbling thunder.)

But when Dr. Melton spun her grim fairy tale, she probably didn’t expect a knight in shining armor to rush in and defend the honor of antioxidant supplements.

Once upon a time

“You name it,” Dr. Melton writes, “if it’s an antioxidant, we’ll swallow it by the bucket-load.”

The condescending implication, of course, is that we’re all being duped into gulping down dozens of useless supplements. Dr. Melton recognizes the value of dietary antioxidants, but in her New Scientist article she puts the emphasis on clinical trials that “prove” antioxidant supplements are ineffective.

And don’t forget the dangers! This part of Dr. Melton’s article is like a trip down antioxidant-bashing memory lane. She cites the research that shows smokers to be at higher risk of lung cancer when they take beta-carotene supplements. And of course she highlights that now-famous vitamin E study that found supplements of the vitamin might increase the risk of “all cause mortality.” (In other words, vitamin E supplements will kill you in a variety of different ways!)

Usually when this type of article makes an appearance, it’s taken at face value by mainstream media outlets that produce quick little articles with scare headlines. This time, however, at least one organization did some actual reporting. In two separate articles, NutraIngredients-USA supplies quotes from several researchers and nutritionists who have some very strong opinions about Dr. Melton’s conclusions.

And a perfect place to start is with a quote regarding that vitamin E study. From Angelo Azzi, M.D., of Tufts University: “[The meta-analysis] is flawed. We re-analyzed the data and there is no change in mortality.”

Thank you, Dr. Azzi!

Missing details

The beta-carotene claim also gets a makeover.

In the e-Alert “Roll Out the Barrel” (4/4/06), I told you about new research that found beta-carotene alone to pose a danger for smokers, but when the antioxidant was consumed with other antioxidant-rich foods the danger was significantly reduced.

And this is one of the points stressed in the NutraIngredients articles. When an antioxidant supplement is singled out and studied on its own, as if it were a drug, the results don’t take into account that antioxidants have been proven to work best when they work together.

James R. Bowman, M.D., (who is also a naturopath and nutritionist) was even more direct in his assessment of Dr. Melton’s article: “I have practiced for 30 years, and have the experience and training to absolutely refute every false allegation stated in this article which is short sighted, misleading, poorly researched, and incomplete in its data and context.”

That doesn’t leave much wiggle room, does it?

But Dr. Melton is a science writer. How could her conclusions about antioxidant supplements be so off the mark? Maybe her employer provides a clue. Dr. Melton writes for the Novartis Foundation, a scientific and educational charity supported by Novartis Pharmaceuticals, the maker of Excedrin, Bufferin, Maalox, Lamisil, and a cholesterol-lowering statin drug called Lescol LX.

Do you suppose her drug company affiliation might color her point of view about antioxidant supplements?

There is one point that Dr. Melton and I agree on. She says, “Whatever is behind the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, you cannot reproduce it by taking purified extracts or vitamin supplements.”

Absolutely right. And that’s why they’re called SUPPLEMENTS, not REPLACEMENTS.