November 30, 2004

The Vitamin Debate Rages On




What: The Truth About Vitamins

Where: TV3

When: 8.30pm, Thursday


ARE you into health and fitness and think that vitamin supplements are the way to go? The Truth About Vitamins may change your mind.

It is an industry that in Britain alone is worth GBP 300 million (NZ$790 million) a year, but the pills are surrounded by controversy. Some people claim that by taking them in large doses, they will prevent or even cure illnesses like cancer and heart disease. But others fear that taking large doses of some vitamins could in certain cases be dangerous. Both sides of the argument are investigated.

The popularity of taking large doses of vitamins can be traced back to one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, double Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling. He claimed that by taking large doses of vitamin C, the equivalent of the amount found in hundreds of oranges, the common cold could be prevented or even cured.

Many scientists accused him of quackery, but the public loved it. Pauling even claimed that huge doses of vitamins could help a person live longer.

Vitamin C is the most popular vitamin sold in Britain, but was Pauling right in claiming that it helps fight the common cold? Professor Balz Frei, the director of the Linus Pauling Institute, thinks that the latest scientific evidence reveals that Pauling was both right and wrong.

Taking large doses of vitamin C does not stop someone catching colds, but it can relieve symptoms and reduce the cold's duration.

However, many people take vitamin C for a very different reason. It is one of a group of vitamins called antioxidants that are claimed to help prevent diseases like cancer or heart disease.

Vitamin E is one of the most popular antioxidant vitamin supplements. But earlier this year, an American scientist warned that people could be missing the potential benefit of their supplements if they took them on an empty stomach, because the vitamin E might not be absorbed properly without the presence of some fat in the stomach.

New research from King's College, London reveals the supplement it tested contained a tiny quantity of fat in itself and that this seemed to be enough to enable the supplement to be absorbed.

Scientists are also still locked in debate about whether taking high doses of vitamin C and E really can reduce the risk of chronic disease, but most safety experts agree that even in doses several times greater than the recommended daily allowance (RDA), they are still relatively safe.

In recent years, some worrying evidence has emerged about a possible harmful effect of vitamin A, even at quite low doses.

Research has shown that long-term intakes of it at about twice the RDA may be linked to weaker bones and an increased risk of bone fracture.

The theory remains controversial but if correct, it means that people with high intakes of vitamin A, either from food or the use of supplements, may be slowly weakening their bones.