By Madeline Marks
Dietary supplements have become a large part of health culture in America. Walk into any grocery store, find the right aisle, and you will discover walls lined with supplements. Supplements that claim to have the answers to weight loss, emotional well-being, and the common cold. I mean who wouldn’t want all of these things? It all seems to be too good to be true! Spoiler alert: it is. These supplements have not fared well in clinical trials. And their downsides can be disastrous. Where did this all come from, anyway? The prevalence of dietary supplements is at an all-time high. It certainly wasn’t like this seventy-five years ago. What changed? What started America’s supplement craze?
It all starts with a man named Linus Pauling; a great chemist, but terrible public health advisor. While supplements were in existence before then, they weren’t nearly as much of a fad as they were after the publication of Linus Pauling’s book, Vitamin C and the Common Cold. In this book, he recommended a dose of 3,000 mg of vitamin C daily, which is fifty times the recommended dose by the US Food and Nutrition Board (Barrett, Stephen. “The Dark Side of Linus Pauling’s Legacy.). Linus Pauling claimed he could not only cure the common cold, but cancer, as well. He later went on to state that vitamin C could also potentially cure heart disease, mental illness, pneumonia, hepatitis, polio, tuberculosis, snakebites, and even AIDS (Offit, Paul. “The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Supplements.). His book was such a hit that by the mid-1970’s, 50 million Americans were taking this dose.
The thing is, none of Pauling’s claims held up in clinical trials. At least 16 refutable studies debunked his theory that vitamin C could cure the common cold. And about the whole cancer situation? A study by the Mayo Clinic involving 367 people with advanced cancer given Pauling’s recommended dose of vitamin C found that it had no clinically significant effect on their cancer. Pauling himself actually got cancer that killed him in 1994.
Thinking this whole thing looks a little shady? Allow me to introduce you to Arthur Robinson. He was a student and colleague of Pauling, who assisted Pauling in founding the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. Robinson conducted an experiment in which he gave rats Pauling’s daily recommended dose of vitamin C. His findings were shocking. He found the rats given the vitamin C developed skin cancer at twice the rate of the control group (Barrett, Stephen.
It’s not hard to imagine that Pauling was not pleased with these results. But instead of correcting his mistakes, Pauling killed Robinson’s animals, expounded him from the institute, and destroyed some of his results.
Robinson responded by suing the institute. He received $575,000 in compensation, $425,000 of which was for slander and libel. But still, Pauling’s ideas about vitamin C remained, untouched by the countless studies that refuted him.
Linus Pauling’s delusional ideas were the breeding ground for an industry worth $37 billion today; the supplement industry. However, because of current laws in place surrounding the industry, the FDA can do virtually nothing to regulate the supplements that make it to the shelves and can really only work to remove supplements that have already caused harm or injury. But why? Who is responsible for this?
In 1994, a bill was passed called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, or DSHEA. This bill basically gives the industry free reign to market whatever they want. The supplements do not have to be approved by the FDA in order to go on the market. In fact, the FDA can’t do this under DSHEA, and the FDA has to be the one to remove them if they become an issue. This results in an order in which supplements are taken off the market, with dangerous supplements being the first to be removed. Then follows products that are fraudulent or in violation of the law. The last tier is reserved for products taken for routine inspection. The supplement manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the “Supplement Facts” label and ingredient information is accurate, including the dosage. Even the FDA states on their website, “[The] FDA does not have resources to analyze dietary supplements sent to the agency by consumers who want to know their content. Instead, consumers may contact the manufacturer or a commercial laboratory for an analysis of the content.” (Mourali, Amir. “The Dark Truth About Nutritional Supplements.”). The thing was, it was pioneered by two US senators, both of which were receiving large compensation from the supplement industry.
The supplement industry is an issue that most people don’t realize we have. So what can we do about it? Well, we’re not going to go around advocating for a change. Let’s be honest — most people don’t have the time or motivation. The best thing we can do is simply not support the industry. So stop buying supplements you don’t need. Don’t let a scam from the 70’s influence where you spend your money.