Paul Offit in The Atlantic has a fascinating look at The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Supplements. The short answer is Linus Pauling, super genius. He received two Nobel Prizes and every top honor in science for revolutionizing chemistry and practically inventing the field of molecular biology. And then at 65, after a glorious career he took up the cause of vitamin C and became “a quack.”
In 1970, Pauling published Vitamin C and the Common Cold, urging the public to take 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C every day (about 50 times the recommended daily allowance). Pauling believed that the common cold would soon be a historical footnote. “It will take decades to eradicate the common cold completely,” he wrote, “but it can, I believe, be controlled entirely in the United States and some other countries within a few years. I look forward to witnessing this step toward a better world.” Pauling’s book became an instant best seller. Paperback versions were printed in 1971 and 1973, and an expanded edition titled Vitamin C, the Common Cold and the Flu, published three years later, promised to ward off a predicted swine flu pandemic. Sales of vitamin C doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. Drugstores couldn’t keep up with demand. By the mid-1970s, 50 million Americans were following Pauling’s advice. Vitamin manufacturers called it “the Linus Pauling effect.”
The American public started downing vitamin supplements like candy, making them in the shapes of cartoon characters to give to their kids. Studies were done showing they were ineffective, at best, and some doctors advised their patients against taking them. But patients would reply: “do you have a Nobel prize?”
As studies kept disproving Pauling’s assertions, he would take it personally and double down endorsing new standards like taking huge amounts of vitamin C with huge amounts of vitamin A. Then, even as the medical community was still sceptical about its efficacy for common colds, Pauling did the ultimate double down and announced that mega doses of vitamin C could cure cancer.
In 1980 both he and his wife died of cancers. So that’s that, right?
Despite study after study that actually shows the people taking the vitamin supplements die quicker than the group NOT taking the vitamins, people are convinced they NEED vitamin supplements.
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…
Researchers have called this “the antioxidant paradox.” Whatever the reason, the data are clear: high doses of vitamins and supplements increase the risk of heart disease and cancer; for this reason, not a single national or international organization responsible for the public’s health recommends them.
But I should still take my vitamin D, right?