Sunday, December 28, 2008

New Zealand’s Vitamin & Natural Health Products Hustle

"Because soils in New Zealand are low in selenium, the selenium content in our food is low, making New Zealand one of the countries with the lowest selenium status in the world"

A recent statement (6th December) from no lesser person than, Associate Professor Welma Stonehouse, from Massey Universities Institute of Food, Health and Human Nutrition.

And what do there low-levels of Selenium, mean to the public at large?

Here’s what a number of web sites around the country had to say on the subject.

“Therefore, low levels of selenium have been implicated in most chronic disease states, to include cancer, premature aging, cataracts, AMD, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis and more” [Southstar Fertilizers]

“Selenium is a natural antioxidant and is one of the essential body substances that can be used in a preventive manner for many diseases including cancer, stroke, arteriosclerosis, cirrhosis, arthritis and emphysema” [www.h]

“Considering selenium blood levels alone those persons in the lowest fifth of all blood selenium levels have twice the incidence of cancer as those in the highest fifth” [www.s]

“As well as being associated with a reduced risk of cancer, selenium is also believed to reduce the risk of heart disease” (Otago Daily Times 5th December)

“It is possible that many degenerative diseases, including cancer may be related to Selenium deficiency and further protection against such ailments improves by increasing your selenium intake” [Janice]

Boy this lack of Selenium must be taking a heavy toll on New Zealanders health?

Well, actually no.

Our rates of the diseases listed above, are virtually identical to similar countries overseas, who as it happens, have higher levels of selenium in their diets. The Government body Medsafe agree.

And what exactly benefits one by taking extra Selenium?

The results of the world’s largest trial just about to be published in The Journal of the American Medical Association – indicates exactly nothing!

The U.S based study of 35,000 men, show no benefits of all for someone taking selenium. Indeed the statistics were so conclusive the 3 year study was ended early, because there was no convincing efficacy.

The goal of this study run by Dr. Scott Lippman, a professor of medicine in the division of cancer medicine at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, was to examine whether selenium, vitamin E, or a combination of both supplements could safely prevent prostate cancer and other diseases in relatively healthy men.

"Selenium or vitamin E, alone or in combination at the doses and formulations used, did not prevent prostate cancer in this population of relatively healthy men," the study authors wrote in their summary

Vitamin E was equally ineffective, a result that mirrors what a similar large-scale (14,641 individuals) Harvard Physicians' Health Study II, encompassing Vitamin C, concluded only last month.

The American Cancer Society provided some objectivity in their summation on the Harvard Medical Schools Study into vitamins:

"Well-conducted clinical trials such as this are rapidly closing the door on the hope that common vitamin supplements may protect against cancer."

"The American Cancer Society recommends getting these and other nutrients by eating a mostly plant-based diet with a variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. A bonus is that this type of diet helps to prevent obesity, which increases the risk of several cancers."

Despite the results of these studies, the New Zealand marketers of vitamins tell a different story, one that flies in the face of all the latest evidence.

"As well as this, Vitamin C is essential for stimulating the immune system, enabling the body to resist disease, including cancer" [ ]

"Thompsons Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant and it has been seen to play a role in the prevention of cancer" [Pharmacy Direct]

But let’s give these marketers a break, call it the benefit of the doubt, may be they didn’t happen upon these studies, being so recent?.

Or are they simply ignoring the mounting adverse studies which indicate the ineffectiveness of vitamins and supplements for all, but those not eating a balanced diet?

Overwhelmingly the later appears to be the case.

You see, the above study from Harvard Medical Schools wasn’t the first they’ve done of late.

There was actually an earlier one this year, and the results from this were even more damning. One of the conclusions reached by
Dr. Harvey Simon was that vitamin E may increase respiratory infections, moderate doses of vitamin A may increase fractures, and beta-carotene may increase the risk of lung cancer in male smokers.

So where are the health warnings, on the products in question?

Not only did this clinical study prove Vitamins to be ineffective against a whole range of advertised benefits, this study also found other supplements were similarly ineffective included zinc (for colds); Echinacea (for colds); saw palmetto (enlarged prostate); ginseng (fatigue); ginkgo (mental alertness). Yohimbine (erectile dysfunction) and DHEA (anti-aging, memory loss)

“Both Echinacea and Olive have additional benefits for heart health” [some of the portrayed benefits one gets ingesting ‘Olive Leaf with Echinacea and Vitamin C’ Pills manufactured by Natures Way and sold through-out New Zealand]

Other studies into Echinacea [University of Virginia 2005, University of Washington 2003, University of Wisconsin 2002] – all say the herbal supplement made from purple coneflower failed to prevent or treat colds.

‘Flu Biotic’ is an Echinacea based anti bacterial formula that helps reduce the seve
rity and duration of acute cold and flu symptoms according to it’s manufacturers Greenridge, Chemists & online stores selling the liquid form at NZD 40 per bottle. The Australian manufacturer Greenridge also boldly state in their publicity ‘Echinacea has the ability to raise the body's resistance to bacterial and viral infections’. So what study or research do they have to back-up their bold (or should that be cold) claims? Well try as I could, there was not one reference available in the sales pitch of any of the 100’s of outlets in Australasia selling this product, including Greenridge themselves. All of the sales-pitches included the same ‘cut & paste’ efficacy claims and nothing of substance, and most certainly not ‘a dicky-bird’ of any of the major studies I’ve mentioned and readily available to anyone with the internet.

The herbal remedy saw palmetto is no more effective than a placebo at treating symptoms related to enlargement of the prostate gland, according to a 2006 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Strange then we still have web sites like ‘Health Chemist’ ( which give Saw Palmetto three stars out of possible three stars for ‘reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit’ along with a list of numerous studies for it’s benefits - all but one of which, were small scale & published in the 1990’s.

US$36.5 million was spent by disease researchers from the University of Pittsburgh to see if ginkgo biloba could help stave off dementia, the answer they got, published last month, was those using ginkgo tablets actually had an even greater likelihood of developing Alzheimer's!

Is that the impression one would have, when looking at this product, on the Chemist/Supermarket shelf?

Were you oblivious to the ruinous results of the world largest most comprehensive study run by The University of Pittsburg into Ginkgo & Memory, and in the market-place to purchase Ginkgo for say an ailing elderly member of the family here in New Zealand, you would be told by The New Zealand Health Information Network (check-out “While there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease, studies have shown ginkgo can slow the onset of the disease and reduce the severity of the symptoms” And that “a dosage of 2 teaspoons of tincture or 2 capsules three times daily will improve the patient’s condition in a matter of weeks”. So what are these studies they allude to in their product brief, there at The New Zealand Health Information Network? Clearly they must supersede & counter the eight year, US$36.5 million, 3,069 person study, researchers undertook at the University of Pittsburg? Well they don’t actually publish them, so we’ll never know.

"For healthy adults I can say with a good deal of confidence that they're not effective,”

Another who has done vitamin research recently had this to say "These things are ineffective, and in high doses they can cause harm,". Dr. Edgar R. Miller, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore followed this up by saying. "People are unhappy with their diets, they're stressed out, and they think it will help. It's just wishful thinking."

In 2004 the results for two studies into Folic Acid & Vitamin B and Heart Attack prevention had this conclusion “The evidence is clear that this type of vitamin therapy is really not effective in reversing or benefiting advanced vascular disease,"

Evidently, Titan ,the New Zealand marketers of a product called ‘Factor 1:Bio-Immunizer’ have a diametrically differing opinion on Folic Acid: “A recent study has found that folic acid and vitamin B6 significantly lowered the risk of coronary heart disease and, in fact, folic acid deficiencies could trigger 30 to 40 percent of the heart attacks and strokes suffered by Americans each year” . The ‘recent’ study they quote was one done in Canada in and published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, June 26, 1996. This 12 year old report is available on the internet and is entitled ‘Is Folic Acid the Answer?’ (notice, the rather obvious question mark in the title) In the Canadian report conclusions the authors state “more than ever we need to be patient and wait for the results from ongoing trials” and “the fact is that the evidence is conflicting and, except for neural tube defects, the beneficial effect of improved folate status remains to be established”. Hardly great endorsement,one feels.

In June this year the results were published for the seven year, 36,282 post-menopausal women study into whether vitamin D and calcium could reduce reduced the risk of developing breast cancer – the results for the supplements were the same as the placebo. As best I can tell, no New Zealand media outlet covered this, so both products are still on sale in New Zealand with accompanying claims to be effective -in effect giving suffers false hope.

The popular supplements glucosamine and chondroitin were also no better than a placebo at preventing cartilage loss in knees of people with the form of arthritis caused by wear and tear, a Utah School of Medicine study found in September.

“Glucosamine may help reduce joint inflammation, decreasing swelling and increasing joint
mobility, and provide temporary relief from the pain of osteoarthritis. Glucosamine may also assist through its direct action in repairing damaged cartilage and therefore promoting improved joint function” [ publicity blurb for Blackmore Glucosamine Capsules, at least at this level they hedged their bets, with the open-ended ‘may’]

But one look at their bottle, tells a different story to any prospective consumer:

Nutra-Life market a combined glucosamine/chondrotin formula they’ve dubbed ‘Joint Food’ which comes with a veritable ‘shopping-list’ of attributes, including “helping maintain joint, ligament and cartilage health associated with age and injury deterioration”. This potential benefit flies in the face of what The Utah School of Medicine found in September, and that study concurs with a Dutch study published in February, looking at hips.

To quote the report from The Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam “Given the lack of clinically important effects on pain, function, and stiffness over 24 months, our results suggest that glucosamine sulphate is not an effective therapy for patients with hip osteoarthritis,"

Earlier, as part of a Federal Study, The University of Utah also looked into the effectiveness of Glucosamine & Chondrotin for treating arthritis in 2004 – and produced an identical ‘no better than placebo’ result.

By now you can see a similarity to all these studies, into vitamins & a string of natural health products touted as curing anything from tinnitus to cancer.

Per head New Zealanders are amongst the world’s larger consumers of vitamins and natural health products.

So why is there not more consumer protection in New Zealand, relating to vitamins and natural products?

If her quote in The Sunday Star Times(28/12/08) is any indication, the Commerce Commission chair Paula Rebstock is fully aware of the situation. “Consumers simply have no way of knowing what is in a pill they buy, other than relying on the claims made for it in adevertising and on the packet”.

Talk about running-up the white flag and admitting “this is too big for us to handle”.

Why is it, a humble layman like myself, can find these reports so readily, when Ms Rebestock and her minions at The Commerce Commission, the so-called consumer watch-dogs, are either unable or unwilling to do replicate this process?

It appears millions of dollars is being wasted on products which simply do not do what they purport to do, and more-ever medical studies ignored?

Just try and find any of these studies linked to a New Zealand site – I hope you’ll have more luck than I did.

Natural Products appear exempt the rigours applied to all other consumer products, even claims to be able to cure cancer escape prosecution and media chastisement.

This ability of manufacturers/importers/retailers to make claims without publicising ALL the known studies allows them to sell ‘false hope’ – the cruellest & most exploitive of all marketing ploys.

Looking at 6 popular supplements available at 12 New Zealand online sellers (multivitamin, vitamin c, vitamin b, Echinacea, Glucosamine) references/studies validating the products effectiveness were only provided on four of the twelve sites.

In the minority (1 in 4) of the cases where references were supplied by on-line retailers the average age of those studies was 1997.

Some of the references given were also dubious at best. The sole supporting reference for one was a was a book called ‘Vitamin C - The Future is Now’ and in another virtually identical case, a publication called ‘The Complete Family Guide to Homeopathy’.Both books came out 13 years ago.

And why are these robust adverse studies into these widely touted ‘health’ products simply ignored by New Zealand media and politician’s alike?

Anyone can google these reports with ease.

Give it a try yourself.

Type in your supplement of your choice, then followed by the word ‘ineffective’ and see what you turn-up?

My bet, is your google search will turn-up more UP-TO-DATE FACTS than you can ever hope to get from the retailers, results which are mysteriously cloaked with some sort of ‘invisibility’ when staff at The Commerce Commission, use the same search engine.

Finally, what further indictment do you need to cease wasting money on products – which for those with healthy diets, make little more than coloured urine?

Footnote: I have sent a copy of this article, to Simon Power (Minister of Commerce) Rodney Hide (Associate Minister of Commerce) and Paula Rebstock (Commerce Commission Chair)

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