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Vitamin safety worries: ‘Not as harmless’ as we thought

Updated: October 13, 2011 11:46PM



Two studies this week raised gnawing worries about the safety of vitamin supplements and a host of questions. Should anyone be taking them? Which ones are most risky? And if you do take them, how can you pick the safest ones?

Vitamins have long had a “health halo.” Many people think they’re good for you and at worst might simply be unnecessary. The industry calls them an insurance policy against bad eating.

But our foods are increasingly pumped full of them already. Even junk foods and drinks often are fortified with nutrients to give them a healthier profile, so the risk is rising that we’re getting too much. Add a supplement and you may exceed the upper limit.

“We’re finding out they’re not as harmless as the industry might have us believe,” said David Schardt, a nutritionist at the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

This week, a study of nearly 40,000 older women found a slightly higher risk of death among those taking dietary supplements, including multivitamins, folic acid, iron and copper.

Another study found that men taking high doses of vitamin E — 400 units a day — for five years had a slightly increased risk of prostate cancer.

As many as one-third of Americans take vitamins and nearly half of people 50 and older take multivitamins, surveys suggest. Americans spent $9.6 billion on vitamins last year.

Yet there is no clear evidence that multivitamins lower the risk of cancer, heart disease or any other chronic health problems.

The best way to get vitamins is to eat foods that naturally contain them, said Jody Engel, a nutritionist with Office of Dietary Supplements.

Some folks may need more of certain nutrients and should talk with their doctors about supplements:

♦ Postmenopausal women regarding calcium and vitamin D to protect bones.

♦ Women planning on pregnancy regarding folate, or folic acid, to prevent birth defects.

♦ People over age 50 and vegans who may need vitamin B12. “As we get older, a number of us no longer produce enough acid in the stomach to extract the B12 in food,” Schardt explained.

♦ Pregnant women, who may need extra iron.

♦ Breastfed infants and possibly other infants concerning vitamin D. AP



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