Nutrition experts contend that all we need is what’s typically found in a routine diet. Industry representatives, backed by a fascinating history, argue that foods don’t contain enough, and we need supplements. Fortunately, many excellent studies have now resolved the issue.
On October 10, 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn’t. Two days later, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer. “It’s been a tough week for vitamins,” said Carrie Gann of ABC News.
These findings weren’t new. Seven previous studies had already shown that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease and shortened lives. Still, in 2012, more than half of all Americans took some form of vitamin supplements. What few people realize, however, is that their fascination with vitamins can be traced back to one man. A man who was so spectacularly right that he won two Nobel Prizes and so spectacularly wrong that he was arguably the world’s greatest quack.
In 1931, Linus Pauling published a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society titled “The Nature of the Chemical Bond.” Before publication, chemists knew of two types of chemical bonds: ionic, where one atom gives up an electron to another; and covalent, where atoms share electrons. Pauling argued that it wasn’t that simple — electron sharing was somewhere between ionic and covalent. Pauling’s idea revolutionized the field, marrying quantum physics with chemistry. His concept was so revolutionary in fact that when the journal editor received the manuscript, he couldn’t find anyone qualified to review it. When Albert Einstein was asked what he thought of Pauling’s work, he shrugged his shoulders. “It was too complicated for me,” he said.
For this single paper, Pauling received the Langmuir Prize as the most outstanding young chemist in the United States, became the youngest person elected to the National Academy of Sciences, was made a full professor at Caltech, and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was 30 years old.
In 1961, Pauling collected blood from gorillas, chimpanzees, and monkeys at the San Diego Zoo. He wanted to see whether mutations in hemoglobin could be used as a kind of evolutionary clock. Pauling showed that humans had diverged from gorillas about 11 million years ago, much earlier than scientists had suspected. A colleague later remarked, “At one stroke he united the fields of paleontology, evolutionary biology, and molecular biology.”
Then all the rigor, hard work, and hard thinking that had made Linus Pauling a legend disappeared. In the words of a colleague, his “fall was as great as any classic tragedy.”
The turning point came in March 1966, when Pauling was 65 years old. He had just received the Carl Neuberg Medal. “During a talk in New York City,” recalled Pauling, “I mentioned how much pleasure I took in reading about the discoveries made by scientists in their various investigations of the nature of the world, and stated that I hoped I could live another twenty-five years in order to continue to have this pleasure. On my return to California I received a letter from a biochemist, Irwin Stone, who had been at the talk. He wrote that if I followed his recommendation of taking 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C, I would live not only 25 years longer, but probably more.” Stone, who referred to himself as Dr. Stone, had spent two years studying chemistry in college. Later, he received an honorary degree from the Los Angeles College of Chiropractic and a “PhD” from Donsbach University, a non-accredited correspondence school in Southern California.
Pauling followed Stone’s advice. “I began to feel livelier and healthier,” he said. “In particular, the severe colds I had suffered several times a year all my life no longer occurred. After a few years, I increased my intake of vitamin C to ten times, then twenty times, and then three hundred times the RDA: now 18,000 milligrams per day.”
Scientists weren’t as enthusiastic. On December 14, 1942, about thirty years before Pauling published his first book, Donald Cowan, Harold Diehl, and Abe Baker, from the University of Minnesota, published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Vitamins for the Prevention of Colds.” The authors concluded, “Under the conditions of this controlled study, in which 980 colds were treated . . . there is no indication that vitamin C alone, an antihistamine alone, or vitamin C plus an antihistamine have any important effect on the duration or severity of infections of the upper respiratory tract.”
Other studies followed. After Pauling’s pronouncement, researchers at the University of Maryland gave 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C every day for three weeks to eleven volunteers and a sugar pill (placebo) to ten others. Then they infected volunteers with a common cold virus. All developed cold symptoms of similar duration. At the University of Toronto, researchers administered vitamin C or placebo to 3,500 volunteers. Again, vitamin C didn’t prevent colds, even in those receiving as much as 2,000 milligrams a day. In 2002, researchers in the Netherlands administered multivitamins or placebo to more than 600 volunteers. Again, no difference. At least 15 studies have now shown that vitamin C doesn’t treat the common cold. As a consequence, neither the FDA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, the Center for Human Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, nor the Department of Health and Human Services recommend supplemental vitamin C for the prevention or treatment of colds.
In 1971, Pauling received a letter from Ewan Cameron, a Scottish surgeon from a tiny hospital outside Glasgow. Cameron wrote that cancer patients who were treated with ten grams of vitamin C every day had fared better than those who weren’t. Pauling was ecstatic. He decided to publish Cameron’s findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Pauling assumed that as a member of the academy he could publish a paper in PNAS whenever he wanted; only three papers submitted by academy members had been rejected in more than half a century. Pauling’s paper was rejected anyway, further tarnishing his reputation among scientists. Later, the paper was published in Oncology, a journal for cancer specialists. When researchers evaluated the data, the flaw became obvious: the cancer victims Cameron had treated with vitamin C were healthier at the start of therapy, so their outcomes were better. After that, scientists no longer took Pauling’s claims about vitamins seriously.
But Linus Pauling still had clout with the media. In 1971, he declared that vitamin C would cause a 10 percent decrease in deaths from cancer. In 1977, he went even further. “My present estimate is that a decrease of 75 percent can be achieved with vitamin C alone,” he wrote, “and a further decrease by use of other nutritional supplements.” With cancer in their rearview mirror, Pauling predicted, Americans would live longer, healthier lives. “Life expectancy will be 100 to 110 years,” he said, “and in the course of time, the maximum age might be 150 years.”
Cancer victims now had reason for hope. Wanting to participate in the Pauling miracle, they urged their doctors to give them massive doses of vitamin C. “For about seven or eight years, we were getting a lot of requests from our families to use high-dose vitamin C,” recalls John Maris, chief of oncology and director of the Center for Childhood Cancer Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “We struggled with that. They would say, ‘Doctor, do you have a Nobel Prize?’ ”
Pauling wasn’t finished. Next, he claimed that vitamin C, when taken with massive doses of vitamin A (25,000 international units) and vitamin E (400 to 1,600 IU), as well as selenium (a basic element) and beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A), could do more than just prevent colds and treat cancer; they could treat virtually every disease known to man. Pauling claimed that vitamins and supplements could cure heart disease, mental illness, pneumonia, hepatitis, polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, chickenpox, meningitis, shingles, fever blisters, cold sores, canker sores, warts, aging, allergies, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, retinal detachment, strokes, ulcers, shock, typhoid fever, tetanus, dysentery, whooping cough, leprosy, hay fever, burns, fractures, wounds, heat prostration, altitude sickness, radiation poisoning, glaucoma, kidney failure, influenza, bladder ailments, stress, rabies, and snakebites. When the AIDS virus entered the United States in the 1970s, Pauling claimed vitamins could treat that, too.
On April 6, 1992, the cover of Time — rimmed with colorful pills and capsule — declared: “The Real Power of Vitamins: New research shows they may help fight cancer, heart disease, and the ravages of aging.” The article, written by Anastasia Toufexis, echoed Pauling’s ill-founded, disproved notions about the wonders of megavitamins. “More and more scientists are starting to suspect that traditional medical views of vitamins and minerals have been too limited,” wrote Toufexis. “Vitamins — often in doses much higher than those usually recommended — may protect against a host of ills ranging from birth defects and cataracts to heart disease and cancer. Even more provocative are glimmerings that vitamins can stave off the normal ravages of aging.” Toufexis enthused that the “pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-La Roche is so enamored with beta-carotene that it plans to open a Freeport, Texas, plant next year that will churn out 350 tons of the nutrient annually, or enough to supply a daily 6 milligram capsule to virtually every American adult.”
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 their backs, 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 fifteen 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.”
Although studies had failed to support him, Pauling believed that vitamins and supplements had one property that made them cure-alls, a property that continues to be hawked on everything from ketchup to pomegranate juice and that rivals words like natural and organic for sales impact: antioxidant.
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 fifty 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 2005, researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine evaluated nineteen studies involving more than 136,000people and found an increased risk of death associated with supplemental vitamin E. Dr. Benjamin Caballero, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said, “This reaffirms what others have said. The evidence for supplementing with any vitamin, particularly vitamin E, is just not there. This idea that people have that [vitamins] will not hurt them may not be that simple.” That same year, a study published in the Journal of theAmerican Medical Association evaluated more than 9,000 people who took high-dose vitamin E to prevent cancer; those who took vitamin E were more likely to develop heart failure than those who didn’t.
On October 10, 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota evaluated 39,000 older women and found that those who took supplemental multivitamins, magnesium, zinc, copper, and iron died at rates higher than those who didn’t. They concluded, “Based on existing evidence, we see little justification for the general and widespread use of dietary supplements.”
Two days later, on October 12, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic published the results of a study of 36,000 men who took vitamin E, selenium, both, or neither. They found that those receiving vitamin E had a 17 percent greater risk of prostate cancer. In response to the study, Steven Nissen, chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, said, “The concept of multivitamins was sold to Americans by an eager nutraceutical industry to generate profits. There was never any scientific data supporting their usage.” On October 25, a headline in the Wall Street Journal asked, “Is This the End of Popping Vitamins?” Studies haven’t hurt sales. In 2010, the vitamin industry grossed $28 billion, up 4.4 percent from the year before. “The thing to do with [these reports] is just ride them out,” said Joseph Fortunato, chief executive of General Nutrition Centers. “We see no impact on our business.”
Seven months later, his wife was dead of stomach cancer. In 1994, Linus Pauling died of prostate cancer.
This is an excerpt from Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.