There is an inevitable smile that shows up when a friend posts an article about vitamins or dietary supplements on Facebook. For a start-up in the nutrition space, increasing consumer awareness about the importance of nutrition is the most challenging part of what we do, and seeing a proactive interest from other people feels great.
Simplifying technical theories and terminology in a way that makes them interesting is no easy task. What is especially difficult is treading the line between presenting scientific evidence and trivialising it through sensationalism. For example, saying that a particular combination of micronutrients reduces the risk of age-related macular degeneration (a kind of eyesight loss in old age) (1) is boring. “CURE FOR BLINDNESS FOUND”, less so. Finding a middle ground that is interesting enough is far more difficult than it seems.
This problem, however, applies to the other side of the fence as well. If someone wants to spread the word that taking too much of a particular nutrient may not be a great idea, saying that vitamin A increased the risk of cancer in people already at high risk (2) will not garner the same amount of attention as “VITAMIN A CAUSES CANCER”.
A very interesting article by Dr. Paul Offit, titled “The Vitamin Myth” has popped up on Facebook and Twitter multiple times in the past week. With all due respect to Dr. Offit, this article is yet another example of the potential risks of oversimplification and sensationalism.
The responses in the comments section of the article share my concerns. However, the comments of people on Facebook ranged from “What an eye-opener!” to “OMG! I’m throwing away all my pills!”.
This, to me, is a major cause for concern.
At this point, a disclaimer is in order.
Dr. Paul Offit developed a rotavirus vaccine that saves thousands of lives each year, and has made invaluable contributions to science. On the other hand, I have founded a start-up in the nutraceutical space that has been around for just 8 months. Our firm’s interest in developing novel products and solutions to improve health outcomes clearly has a profit motive involved. However, my concerns with articles such as this stem from the fact that apart from changing people’s perspectives, they can be downright dangerous.
I have spoken to a few people who have read the article, and their responses have been similar – they now believe that vitamins are bad for them. What’s worrisome is the fact that these are not people who will never try a vitamin product. These are individuals taking them who now intend to stop.
Articles such as this propagate a generic perspective that a healthy diet is all that you require to remain in the best of health. This healthy diet will give you all the nutrients that you need to stay fighting fit till age finally catches up with you.
What none of these articles will ever tell you is what exactly that “healthy diet” is. What we have come across repeatedly (and what has motivated us to set up our venture) is the fact that a “healthy diet” is one of the least understood terms around.
Is a “healthy diet” a traditional, vegetarian Indian diet?
A research centre we work with analyzed the data of 2000 individuals in Mumbai, the results of which they shared with us. Over 70% of these people had a vitamin D deficiency, and over 90% of the vegetarians in this group had a vitamin B12 deficiency. What was shocking was that all 2000 believed that their diets were healthy. The incredibly high incidence of iron deficiency anaemia in India, especially in vegetarians, was reported by the mainstream media following the National Family Health Survey.(3)
A diet with high fibre vegetables and antioxidant-rich fruits, perhaps?
There have been regular reports in the media for the past few years linking contaminated groundwater to an increased incidence of some extremely serious diseases(4). A Mumbai-based nutritionist has recently shown that the produce available in the city has negligible vitamins compared to the same produce grown on an organic farm in Nasik. With yield being a priority over the quality of fruits and vegetables, this trend will only continue.(5)
An all organic, locally sourced, sustainably grown, high protein, antioxidant-rich, high omega 3, seasonal diet transported straight from the farm to our kitchen in biodegradable containers would be great. But it isn’t practical. Some of us don’t have access. Others may not be able to afford it. Some locations don’t permit it.
However, what is possible is a Vitamin D supplement for those of us who spend a lot of time away from direct sunlight, or a B12 fortified product for those averse to meat. Supplemental vitamin C to improve the absorption of iron in our food or an omega 3 supplement to fortify our vegetarian diets can go a long way in ensuring good health.
Nutrition science gives all of us the ability to take charge of our health. It enables us to identify what is missing in our diets and remedy it, either with whole foods or with dietary supplements. People make smart decisions when presented with all the facts. We see this first hand every single day.
Using big marketing budgets to sensationalize health claims is harmful to consumer health, but using mainstream media to instill fear without presenting all the facts is equally damaging. By increasing transparency and practicing restraint on both sides of the fence, we can collectively focus on why we entered this space to begin with – to keep people as healthy as we can.