Industry downplays folate-cancer link

Supplement industry leaders expressed concern over an assertion by a medical newsletter that men should stop taking multivitamins because they could be linked with cancer.

The March issue of Harvard Men's Health Watch said in, "Multivitamins and your health: a reappraisal," that a 2007 study had found an upward blip in the number of people in the US and Canada developing colon cancer in the mid-1990s. This coincided with moves by the governments of both countries to demand that the food industry fortify food with folate to prevent defects in newborn babies, raising the possibility of a link.

In a press release promoting the article, the HMHW said: "Researchers speculate that high intakes of folic acid, which was first added to grain products in the 1990s, may have contributed to an increase in colorectal cancers in the mid-1990s. "What does all of this have to do with multivitamins? Now that folic acid is added to so many grain products, it's easy to see how a healthy diet, combined with a multivitamin, could boost a person's daily intake to 1,000mcg or more, potentially increasing the risk of colorectal [cancer]. "In light of this research, Harvard Men's Health Watch suggests that the average man give up the multivitamin, at least until scientists solve the puzzle of folic acid and cancer."

But Andrew Andrew Shao, vice president, scientific & regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, said the study should be treated with caution because many others had linked folate intake with good health.

"The last thing consumers need is for the research community to have a knee-jerk reaction to what is an interesting but new piece of research. "For years researchers have hypothesised that low folate intake is linked with colonic cancer. We also know the established benefits of folic acid in regards to neural tube defects, cardiovascular and cognitive health. Are we just going to give up on all that?

"Everything is about the study du jour. It's flip-flopping around and confusing the heck out of everyone." The press release had also "overly sensationalised" what had been a "fairly balanced" report in the newsletter itself, he added.

Shao said the advice to eschew multivitamins was misguided when studies consistently showed the US diet was deficient in vital vitamins and minerals. In addition, he said, research by CRN showed that more 79% of US physicians and 82% of nurses recommended dietary supplements to their patients. It also found that 72% of physicians and 89% of nurses personally used vitamin, mineral, herbal and other supplements either regularly, occasionally or seasonally.

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