Experts find no validity in osteopathic group's use of survey to make claim that supplements are of no use

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty Images / Sam Edwards
Getty Images / Sam Edwards
A recent poll conducted for the American Osteopathic Association reached some surprising conclusions, which a spokesman for the group used to justify the view that supplement users are wasting their money. Industry stakeholders said some of the poll’s results looked outlandish, and threw the whole enterprise into doubt.

The Harris Poll conducted the survey for the association in mid December. It contacted 2,001 US adults ages 18 and older, among whom 1,749, or 86% of the respondents, take vitamins or supplements. But the press release that accompanied the announcement of the poll results noted that only about a quarter (24%) of those who take supplements said they had received test results indicating they have a nutritional deficiency.

Osteopath claims supplements could be harmful

A spokesperson for the group, Dr Mike Varshavski, DO, said this proves the case that most people have no need to take vitamins and are wasting their money on supplements that are unlikely to improve their health.

"Numerous investigations show the alleged benefits are unproven and in the worst cases, vitamins and supplements can be harmful," ​Dr Varshavski said.

Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, is an expert in the field of vitamin and mineral supplementation and has published dozens of studies on the subject in his years at Tufts University in Boston, where he is a research professor in the school’s Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Some anomalies in the data presented from the poll give cause for doubt, he said.

Blumberg noted that the percentage of people who take supplements in the poll was significantly higher than other surveys. With his research experience, a piece of data that sticks out at a big angle in a study raises questions about the whole effort. In this case, the percentage of people who said they use vitamins or other supplements is significantly higher than what other surveys have shown.

“This is way more than was shown in NHANES or what other studies have found, where the levels are more like 50%,” ​Blumberg told NutraIngredients-USA. “I question whether this is a truly randomized selection of US adults, or what could account for this huge increase. It does make me quest​ion the rest of the data.”

Duffy Mackay, ND, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the trade group Council for Responsible Nutrition, said that figure also caught his eye.  

“In our survey, the figure for supplement use is more like 75%, but that included everyone who used a supplement in the past year. So that could include someone who took echinacea for a week because they had the sniffles,” ​he said.

Ample evidence for shortfalls

Both Blumberg and MacKay also took issue with what he viewed as an incautious use of the word ‘deficiencies’ in the press release accompanying the poll results.

“Deficiencies are serious diseases. If we extrapolate this data, then I would expect that there would be millions of Americans suffering from scurvy, pellagra or beri beri. Or these people are using very imprecise language,”​ he said.

“What we do know is that a lot of Americans are falling short in the intake of 11 essential vitamins and minerals and of dietary fiber,” ​he said.

“More than 60% are low in vitamin D, E and K. About 50% fall short on magnesium and calcium. There is no doubt there is a shortfall on micronutrient intakes,”​ Blumberg added.

“This is a very narrow thinking and an overmedicalization of nutrition,” ​MacKay said. “We have many Americans who run around insufficient in nutrients.”

Another ‘unregulated’ claim

Dr Varshavski also noted in the press release that in his view the dietary supplement industry has little oversight.

“I advise patients that this industry is highly unregulated, so it's important to research manufacturers to ensure their products actually contain the nutritional supplements advertised,”​ he said.

“For someone at this level to say that supplements are unregulated, well, it’s almost embarrassing,”​ MacKay said. “I could buy it if he had said he’s not happy with the existing regulations and he wants them to change. But if you are going to be a spokesman for an organization, you need to do your homework.”

“I think what he has done is a bunch of headline grabbing. He is doing a big bait and switch, cherry picking the worst case scenarios out there and using that make assumptions about the whole industry. This not-so-accurate attempt to discredit the industry just confuses consumers. And I think it harms his reputation and could harm the reputation of the osteopathic association,”​ he said.

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