Antioxidant Supplements Increase Mortality

Image Credit: Bicanski / Pixnio. This image has been modified.

In my video Industry Response to Plants Not Pills, I discuss a famous study that started so many down the wrong track. Thousands of men were followed for 19 years, and there was a stepwise drop in risk of lung cancer for smokers who got more and more beta-carotene in their diet. Researchers estimated this simply by adding up how much fruit, vegetables, and soup the men ate. So, did they start treating smokers with fruit, veggies, and soup? No, they gave them beta-carotene pills. However, those taking the pills got more lung cancer than those who didn’t, and there were more deaths from lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke, and a shorter average lifespan overall. This didn’t stop them from trying it over and over again, though. Six more studies were performed, and beta-carotene pills continued to increase mortality. In a compilation of 20 other studies in which they gave beta-carotene and other antioxidant supplements, mortality was significantly increased.

As one study pointed out, “An obvious conclusion is that isolated nutrients are drugs, but not studied or regulated as drugs, and perhaps they should be. Food, on the other hand, needs to be treated in a different way, cognisant of the food synergy concept.” The whole food is greater than the sum of its parts.

Yes, low beta-carotene levels in the blood increase the risk of heart disease mortality, but that’s basically just saying low intake of carrot, pumpkin, collard greens, and kale increases the risk of heart disease mortality or that there is a carrot, spinach, and sweet potato deficiency in the United States.

It is true that the more carotenoids we have in our blood, the healthier we may be. However, we should consider the following cautionary advice: “Though unscrupulous marketers may use the carotenoid health index for selling dietary supplements, responsible scientists and food producers need to emphasize the use of foods and whole food products to improve [blood] carotenoid concentrations.”

Indeed, “[w]e can now see that giving supplements of [beta]-carotene was a misguided way to prevent cancer. Instead, researchers should have sought to determine which foods have the most convincing negative association with cancer” and then put those fruits and vegetables to the test in randomized controlled trials.

“‘Science’ tends to be reductionist, looking for discrete causes and effects. It is hard to get food studies past peer grant reviewers unless they take the food apart, which seems to us to miss the point.” “The key is to encourage consumers to increase the total amount to 9 to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables” every day.

“The past 30 years have seen the development of an enormous body of evidence on the importance of plant-based foods in preventing or reducing the risk of chronic disease.” However, “despite broadly disseminated public information programs on how to eat healthily…it is extremely difficult to get people to change their diets.”

One proposed solution is to add back the health-promoting phytonutrients that are missing from many convenience foods. By eating more fruits and vegetables? No, silly, by genetically engineering phytonutrients into fast food. People eat ketchup, not kale, so who needs greens when you can genetically engineer high-folate tomatoes? Why buy berries when you can make tomatoes purple by stitching in two genes from snapdragons to make transgenic tomatoes? Instead of soybean burgers, we can have soybean genes in the ketchup on our burgers. And you’ve heard of grape tomatoes? How about really grape tomatoes?

Pills are more profitable than plants, but when pills don’t work, industry will try patenting the produce itself.

I’ve talked about this kind of reductionist thinking before:

There actually may be benefits to patenting produce, though. See my Plants as Intellectual Property: Patently Wrong? video.

What about the GMOs that are already on the market? See:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

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