'Vitamins can cause cancer': scaremongering or truth?

Henrietta Norton BSc, Dip NT, MBANT, AFMCP Co-founder of Wild Nutrition and Nutritional Therapist.

Today’s papers have reported on the publication of a new review of previous research (including the SELECT trial of 2011 and the PLCOCS trial in 2006) conducted by leading cancer researcher Dr Byers. The review looks at the long-term evidence behind taking high dose synthetic isolate (the form commonly used in supplements) Vitamin E, folic acid and beta-carotene and impact on cancer risk. It concludes that taking high dose supplements can increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer and heart disease.


I read these articles with mixed emotions.  On the one hand the report aligns with our own concerns here at Wild Nutrition of taking high dose synthetic nutrients (and the very passion that sprung WN into existence in the first place). Yet coupled with this is also a deep sense of frustration at the continued reductionist reporting on supplements. ‘Supplement’ is an umbrella term; a label applied to any nutrient that ‘supplements’ the diet outside of eating conventional food. Yet there is a seismic difference between how different supplements are made and therefore how supportive, or not, they can be for your health.


Synthetic isolate nutrients are not the same as Food and Food-Grown nutrients


Taking high doses of synthetic isolated nutrients may come at a cost to the body, by impacting on the fine biochemical ‘balance’ that the body works hard to maintain to prevent disease. In the SELECT study for example, researchers used a synthetic, isolate form of Vitamin E, alpha-tocopherol, a form that is not well moderated by the body and not found in food. This means that the body cannot easily assimilate what it does need nor remove what it doesn’t.  Delta and gamma tocopherol on the other hand are forms of vitamin E that are naturally found in food and in Food-State nutrients, both of which can be easily adapted to the bodies requirements.


Similarly the Folic Acid used in the PLCOCS trial used a synthetic isolated form of Folic Acid rather than the complete natural Folate found in food and Food-Grown Nutrients.


The original work of Professor Albert Szent Gyorgyi MD, PhD who, during his research to cure patients from scurvy (and which earnt him the Nobel Prize) in 1937, noticed a similar difference between food-bound Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) and the synthetic isolated form. He found that the more isolated or ‘crystalline’ the Ascorbic Acid was, the lower the effect: "When I had crystalline Ascorbic Acid, we tried it on patients with scurvy, expecting a strong action. It did nothing… Human physiology will always be able to distinguish between Vitamin C in synthetic form and that from an orange”


Indeed he concluded from his studies “a vitamin is a substance that makes you ill if you do not eat it in a natural food matrix form”. It was the work of Gyorgi that initiated the production of Food-State nutrients, “a form of supplementation that provided the benefits of whole-food yet without the bulk”.


But why can't you rely solely on food?


Sadly statistics show that we can no longer rely on our food to supply us with the full range and quantity of the vital nutrients we require for optimum health. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) stated that the trace minerals in UK fruit and vegetables have fallen by over 76%.


Decades of intensive farming and a global market of importation and exportation has meant that fruit and vegetables are being picked before they are ripe, significantly reducing their nutritional value. In her report for the Select Committee on Environment, Food & Rural affairs Dr Helen Fullerton concluded: “Selenium is desperately low in virtually all UK soils and, as admitted by Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF), its intake is half what it should be in the human population due to removal by cropping and to leaching by the sulphate in acid rain and ammonium sulphate fertilizers”. Medication can influence our nutrient levels too, for example Metformin and Vitamin B12, the contraceptive pill and vitamin B6. Our use of medication has also increased, with an average of 74.4% visits to a GP resulting in a prescription. In 2011 over 900 million prescriptions were issued in England alone.


So should you take supplements?


For me the evidence is clear. We can no longer rely on food alone, supplementation has fast become a necessity to many seeking preventative care. However what I cannot express enough is the need to do your own research. Look at the sources of nutrients, does the label read like a list of chemicals? Look at the dose, more does not equal more.  Choose wisely and intuitively.


To understand more about how different supplement categories are metabolised, see 'Not all supplements are created equal; but why?' and 'The nature of nutrient metabolism in the body'.

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