Taking vitamins to combat the effects of heart disease or cancer is a waste of time, according to researchers from Oxford University's Clinical Trial Service.
Writing in The Lancet, the team of researchers led by Professor Rory Collins, said they had carried out a five year study involving more than 20,000 people and discovered that a daily dose of vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene had no effect whatsoever on patients suffering from heart disease, cancer, cataracts, bone fracture or mental decline.
"There was no evidence of any protective effect against heart disease, cancer or any other outcome. They are safe, but they are useless," Collins said, a statement which will undoubtedly have the vitamin manufacturers up in arms. "People would be far better off spending the money on fresh fruit and vegetables," said Dr Jane Armitage, co-author of the study.
The Oxford team were conducting the research as part of the British Heart Protection Study, which tracked the health of 20,000 people aged 40 to 80 over five years. As well as the cocktail of vitamins, they investigated the effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, which they found were effective at combating the risk of heart disease and stroke.
However, the patients taking the vitamin cocktail were found to be no better off at the end of five years than those taking a placebo. Vitamins C and E and beta-carotene are well-known antioxidants which combat disease by mopping up the free radicals which can cause them. But the Oxford team found that the statins were much more effective at fighting the effects of LDL or 'bad' cholesterol than the antioxidants, having an effect within a year and leading to significant benefits over the five-year period.
"There have been other studies into vitamins, but this is the first major study that has looked at a cocktail of vitamins. We were disappointed, but by the end not very surprised. At the beginning there was enormous optimism that this would be the answer," said Armitage.
Despite the size and scope of the study, there are still a number of factors which supplement supporters said must be taken into account. The doses administered to the participants may not have been sufficiently high, while the five-year period may not have been long enough to reveal the beneficial effects of vitamin supplementation, especially for diseases such as cancer.
While Collins and his team were scornful of the benefits of vitamins, they were wholeheartedly behind the increased use of statins. "If an extra 10 million high-risk people were put on statin treatment, 50,000 lives a year could be saved," said Collins. "In addition, this would prevent similar numbers of people from suffering non-fatal heart attacks and strokes."