Is there a media bias or is Flat Earth News the new normal for the dietary supplements industry?

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Is there a media bias or is Flat Earth News the new normal for the dietary supplements industry?

Related tags Mass media

Supplements are back in the headlines, with sensationalist and worrying headlines based on old research and a university press release. Is this the new normal for the dietary supplements industry?

Flat Earth News​ is an excellent book by Nick Davies that sheds light on how the modern mainstream newsroom works. The basic premise is that modern newsrooms are so lean, so stretched, and the 24-hour news cycle so ruthless that journalists don’t question the information they receive. Add to this the fact that many journalists are no longer specialists, they jump from one topic to another, and you get people practicing churnalism and not journalism. The result is that consumers of the media believe stories that are as incorrect as the idea that the Earth is flat.

Look at the mainstream media coverage of a forum at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2015 and it screams Flat Earth News​: Tim Byers, MD, from the University of Colorado Cancer Center, described how his research has found that over-the-counter supplements may increase cancer risk if taken in excess of the recommended dietary amount. His university sent out a press release (Dietary supplements shown to increase cancer risk​) ​and the headlines and articles quickly followed.

It is not a good release. It’s lacking in facts and didn’t even mention that the data source for this was a 2012 review published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute​.​ The review focuses on antioxidants, folic acid, and vitamin D and calcium. A note has since been added to the original release stating the data source, along with the comment: “Many recent news reports stemming from this news release present incomplete data.”​ This made me smile a wry smile because many mainstream media outlets ran the original release pretty much word-for-word.

‘If taken at the correct dosage, multivitamins can be good for you’

While facts may be lacking in the release, what is not lacking is a collection of scary quotes:

“We found that the supplements were actually not beneficial for their health. In fact, some people actually got more cancer while on the vitamins,”​ explains Byers.

“At the end of the day we have discovered that taking extra vitamins and minerals do more harm than good,”​ says Byers.

But then there is this quote: “This is not to say that people need to be afraid of taking vitamins and minerals,”​ says Byers. “If taken at the correct dosage, multivitamins can be good for you. But there is no substitute for good, nutritional food.”

The excessive intakes is key in all of this and is totally lost in the reporting – drink too much water and you’ll be in trouble. The dose makes the poison.

Also missing from all of the mainstream media reports is any mention of the Physicians’ Health Study (PHS) II. PHS II is the only large-scale, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial investigating the long-term effects of a common multivitamin in the prevention of chronic disease. In other words, it’s a big deal. The PHS II found that daily supplements of multivitamins may reduce​ the risk of cancer by 8%​.

While it also found no effects on cardiovascular disease it certainly did not find any harm. What's more, additional data from the PHS II found that long-term use of vitamin C and E supplements do not increase the risk of cancer​, while vitamin C may offer some colorectal benefits. That particular study was published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition​. Again, after Dr Byers' 2012 review. 

Supplements are an easy target right now

This press release should really have received no coverage at all, but it got plenty. Why? Supplements are an easy target right now – the combination of the NY AG probe, products containing anabolic steroids, and products spiked with amphetamine-like compounds are providing regular fodder for the time-squeezed journalist.

So is it Flat Earth News​ or something more sinister? Most people say that the New York Times’ coverage of the NY AG displays an agenda against the products. Other media outlets are just rerunning what they think is a trustworthy release because it comes from a university. It’s undoubtedly a mixture of the two.

There are some big questions that need answering:
Can the industry change the conversation in the media or is it too late? Is it time for a GOED-style campaign for multivitamins, to bypass the media and go straight to the consumer? I don’t know, but I do know that the coverage in the mainstream media is unlikely to change any time soon.
This is the new normal. The Earth is once again flat.

What do you think?

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History repeats itself..

Posted by Carol Lusker,

Thanks Stephen.

The dissemination of misleading and flat out wrong anti-supplement information by corporate media and corporate medicine is a recurring pattern, thus proof of politics instead of factual accounts - example: google or bing "2 Big Lies: No Vitamin Benefits & Supplements Are Very Dangerous"

The core intent and/or result of this propaganda is the deception of the public.

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Reporters have become lemmings, consumers will suffer

Posted by Suzanne Shelton,

Once again you've identified the material point in a situation, Steve. Facts are immaterial when a paper can simply regurgitate what the New York Times "reports."

I'm concerned that this cascade of negative media coverage based upon bad science and cherry-picked facts has created a situation much like that which spawned anti-vaxxers: based upon bad science consumers make decisions with serious negative health consequences despite repeated exposure to actual facts based upon solid science.

Added to that is how much more difficult it will be for us to defeat legislation calling for pre-market approval, which the Times has been advocating.

The impact on all our livelihoods aside, the negative effect on consumers' health if they forgo the benefits supplements can provide either through fear of harm from our products, belief in media assertions they do no good, or massive cost increases created by pre-market approval, would escalate health care costs, not to mention negative impact on quality of life.

Those companies that have focused on communicating with their customers and developing trust through the years are in the best position to set the record straight. Education and real transparency are key here.

It's also crucial that the industry step up and increase support for the trade associations that are on the front lines of this overwhelming battle, because there is some excellent work being done without which things would be worse (Thank you, Judy!) . Any company in this industry that is not a member of at least one trade association already is incredibly short sighted not to remedy that right this minute.

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What wasn't explained

Posted by Marc Masor, Ph.D.,

Nice piece Stephen. I did read the news release and had a similar reaction. One of the studies pointed to was the beta carotene study that showed an increased risk of cancer (actually it was lung cancer). As I recall, that increase was seen only in smokers who were in the beta carotene treatment group and showed an adverse interaction between smoking and beta carotene.

As for folic acid, without seeing the original data it's difficult to know what that was based on, but given that folic acid is required for cell division, and that it interferes with the cell-division suppressing effects of chemotherapy (it's proscribed for such patients), how do we know that it's not simply exacerbating a preexisting tumor.

As for vitamin E, I believe most of those studies used synthetic E, which is a mixture of 8 stereoisomers, only one of which is actually RRR-alpha-tocopherol. There are studies showing that synthetic E suppresses blood levels of gamma tocopherol (another physiologically important antioxident). How do we know that these effects weren't related to the suppression of gamma tocopherol?

Many of these analyses are done by physicians with little or no nutritional knowledge, and who are looking at these studies as if nutrients are pharmaceuticals, which is completely inappropriate.

All of this is far too complex for the lay reader who sees these news reports, and equally so for the reporters who pass on this information to the public.

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