Beware of “food fraud”

What is a great way to save money and be healthier, too? The answer, for many of us: stop spending money on packaged foods with added vitamins etc. and cut back on the vitamins and supplements you take. Most recent research on the effectiveness and safety of supplementary vitamins and minerals (supposedly to prevent heart disease, cancer and other ills) has shown that people who take them have no better, and often worse, health outcomes than people who don’t take them. Even daily multivitamins may put us at risk for negative effects, when taken on top of vitamins added to cereals, breakfast bars, fruit drinks, and other processed foods that make health claims. For example, here is what might happen when you take too much:

  • Vitamin A — increased risk of hip fractures, liver abnormalities, birth defects, and lung cancer (in smokers)
  • Vitamin B-6 — neurological damage
  • Iron — constipation, iron overload
  • Selenium — increased risk of skin cancer, diabetes
  • Vitamin E — in some studies, people on high doses died at a higher rate
  • Vitamin K — interference with some “blood thinning” drugs
  • Folic Acid — increased risk of cancer (if you are going to get pregnant, you may need to take extra Folic Acid to reduce risk of some birth defects)
  • Calcium — in men, increased risk of prostate cancer
  • Phospohorus — can interfere with calcium absorption
  • Zinc — associated with higher rate of advanced prostate cancer

For most of us, there is no need to worry about these potential risks, but if you are eating vitamin “enriched” foods and taking other supplements, you could be getting too much of something. Plus, there is very little evidence that we need supplements in the absence of specific deficiencies. Many of us are deficient in Vitamin D, for example, and we should have our blood tested for current levels to see how much extra we might need.

If you want to take a multivitamin for “insurance” against possible deficiencies, it may be wise to take it every other day, rather than daily. For much more on this topic see Nutrition Action Health Letter, June, 2008 (available here soon).

For an excellent and entertaining take on overly-hyped and overly-processed food, follow this link.

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3 Responses to “Beware of “food fraud””

  1. Penny Says:

    I agree. I always wonder whats wrong with the food anyway if they need to be adding all that extra stuff,and how is it made? I dont have a bottle of vitamin k in my cupboard and I cant pick it from the garden. What’s been done to my milk or yoghurt if they need to add calcium to it? Do you know why soy is increasingly in everything? Like pachets of dried herbs,custard,yoghurt,cocoa

  2. Lauren Says:

    Great Post! The vitamin issue has been a debate for a while. Do we need vitamin supplements or not? I think that anyone who eats their five servings of fruit and veggies is good to go. Also, a lot of breakfast cereals contain a day’s worth of vitamins so supplements are not necessary.

  3. Rebecca Scritchfield Says:

    I never fall short of clients of all ages and abilities (athletes to non-exercisers) who take supplements — way more than a multivitamin.

    I’ve had people overdo vitamin C 10,000% and have diarrhea, but it went away once the vitamin C overdose stopped.

    I would add to this post by suggesting that if someone is concerned about vitamin/mineral levels to have their diet evaluated by a registered dietitian. I have found numerous intake inadequacies after analyzing a whole week’s worth of menus. Then I work with them on getting nutrients from real food. I think there is benefit to some of the functional foods, but by and large most supplements are over the top even for our “big boy” pro athletes.

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