No more dietary supplement research ... ever!

There’s no need for follow up comments, or additional articles on this topic, or anything related to it, ever

The article you are reading is the definitive word on dietary supplement research.

After this, no one need ever write on this topic or conduct further research in this area again, unless, of course, you agree with my conclusions and just want to say so, because this piece unequivocally delivers the final word on the topic I’m writing about: dietary supplement research.

Does this sound crazy to you? Not to mention a little pretentious, ego-inflated and defensive? It does to me too. But there seems to be a recent trend among researchers, particularly those studying the effects of specific dietary ingredients, to publish their study (sometimes it’s not even an actual study; it’s a meta-analysis of other people’s research) and then declare the final nail has been placed in the coffin; no one else need investigate further (and risk contradicting their conclusions).

Here are some examples: In April, The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology published a meta-analysis of vitamin D research whose authors not only found “little justification for prescribing vitamin supplements to prevent falls” but also declared that future trials “are unlikely to alter these conclusions,” and such research would be “futile.” Never mind that their analysis did show a reduction in falls—just not the greater than 15 percent reduction that they set up as the threshold. They also ignored the fact that in 2012, there were 1.2 million fracture events related to osteoporosis in the U.S., with an average treatment cost of $11,020 per event. So even a 10 percent reduction in falls would save the U.S. healthcare system over $1.3 billion dollars.

Then last December, five doctors penned an editorial in Annals of Internal Medicine in which they likewise declared the futility of any future trials of multivitamins for chronic disease prevention and stated, “we believe that the case is closed—supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful... Enough is enough.” The writers disregarded that the three actual studies of multivitamins published in that same issue demonstrated mixed results for benefits of vitamins and unequivocally demonstrated no apparent harms. While only the cognitive component of the Physicians Health Study II appeared in that publication, other arms of PHS II also demonstrated health benefits from the multivitamin for cancer risk prevention and reduction of cataracts.

The real problem with a researcher declaring his or her study the “final word” is that it runs counter to the very nature of science, and strikes me as being more about increasing the odds of publication in a high-profile journal, attracting sensationalized media attention, and enhancing tenure potential than it is about fostering scientific dialogue. 

There are several reasons these kinds of self-serving pronouncements must stop. First, science should be replicated. That’s how we know a particular experiment wasn’t a red herring, off in left field. One of the reasons for peer-review and publication is so that future researchers can re-create the methodology and validate—or contradict—the earlier conclusions. Discouraging replication or extensions of one’s research feels more like a scientist trying to stake claim to their corner and keep others out.   

Second, science is constantly evolving, learning from the totality of previous research and extending the earlier conclusions. It looks for nuance or possible differences among different populations, different dosages or conditions of use. Sometimes a single experiment can lead scientific thinking in a whole new direction. Science makes unexpected connections between disparate studies and leads to new hypotheses that might reveal new truths. When scientists deter future research, they discourage that inquiry that might lead to the next big breakthrough.

And that, my friends, is the final word on the state of nutrition research. There’s no need for follow up comments, or additional articles on this topic, or anything related to it, ever…ever.

Steve Mister is the president and CEO for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the dietary supplement industry’s leading trade association.

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