The National Nutritional Foods Association (NNFA), a lobbying group for vitamin manufacturers, couldn’t believe its good luck, calling the Time article “a watershed event for the industry.” As part of an effort to get the FDA off its back, the NNFA distributed multiple copies of the magazine to every member of Congress. Speaking at an NNFA trade show later in 1992, Toufexis said, “In 15 years at Time I have written many health covers. But I have never seen anything like the response to the vitamin cover. It whipped off the sales racks, and we were inundated with requests for copies. There are no more copies. ‘Vitamins’ is the number-one-selling issue so far this year.”
Antioxidation vs. oxidation has been billed as a contest between good and evil. The battle takes place in cellular organelles called mitochondria, where the body converts food to energy, a process that requires oxygen and so is called oxidation. One consequence of oxidation is the generation of electron scavengers called free radicals (evil). Free radicals can damage DNA, cell membranes, and the lining of arteries; not surprisingly, they've been linked to aging, cancer, and heart disease. To neutralize free radicals, the body makes its own antioxidants (good). Antioxidants can also be found in fruits and vegetables—specifically, selenium, beta-carotene, and vitamins A, C, and E. Studies have shown that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have a lower incidence of cancer and heart disease and live longer. The logic is obvious: If fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants—and people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables are healthier—then people who take supplemental antioxidants should also be healthier.
In fact, they’re less healthy.
In 1994, the National Cancer Institute, in collaboration with Finland’s National Public Health Institute, studied 29,000 Finnish men, all long-term smokers more than 50 years old. This group was chosen because they were at high risk for cancer and heart disease. Subjects were given vitamin E, beta-carotene, both, or neither. The results were clear: Those taking vitamins and supplements were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease than those who didn’t take them—the opposite of what researchers had anticipated.
In 1996, investigators from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, studied 18,000 people who, because they had been exposed to asbestos, were at increased risk of lung cancer. Again, subjects received vitamin A, beta-carotene, both, or neither. Investigators ended the study abruptly when they realized that those who took vitamins and supplements were dying from cancer and heart disease at rates 28 and 17 percent higher, respectively, than those who didn’t.
In 2004, researchers from the University of Copenhagen reviewed 14 randomized trials involving more than 170,000 people who took vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene to see whether antioxidants could prevent intestinal cancers. Again, antioxidants didn’t live up to the hype. The authors concluded, “We could not find evidence that antioxidant supplements can prevent gastrointestinal cancers; on the contrary, they seem to increase overall mortality.” When these same researchers evaluated the seven best studies, they found that death rates were 6 percent higher in those taking vitamins.