It's a familiar story. Research or a review of research is published questioning the effectiveness of a nutrient in one or another research environment. The mainstream consumer press jumps on it with excited headlines screaming, 'X doesn't work!' Industry responds, usually by dissecting the research and demonstrating why the conclusions being drawn are inappropriate.
Under the microscope the research is often less damning — and damaging to the vitamin industry — than the headlines. Unfortunately for industry, a swathe of mainstream consumer headlines proclaiming, 'Study was flawed. X works!' rarely follows.
It is no laughing matter. When vitamin E was the subject of such treatment a few years ago, worldwide sales slipped dramatically, in some markets by more than half. It is hard to see how the cycle can be broken. The research keeps coming and the media outlets are showing no signs of fatigue for these kinds of stories.
Vitamin C is the latest antioxidant to have research suggest it is useless. It seems every letter vitamin and most minerals cop the questioning research treatment at one point or another, with vitamin C being the latest antioxidant to be lead to the 'no better than a placebo' gallows.
The latest review looked at 30 studies and concluded vitamin C was ineffective in curing the common cold. 'Vitamin C 'does not stop colds' said the BBC. 'Vitamin C useless for colds' trumpeted Sydney's The Daily Telegraph. 'Vitamin C Way Overrated Vs. Common Cold?' pondered the United States' CBS. 'Taking vitamin C to ward off colds 'is a waste of time' said the UK Times. You get the picture.
Dr. Robert Verkerk, executive director of the pan-European trade group, the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH) issued the typical response. "These headlines have been triggered by a small update to an existing review that does not reflect any significant new research findings. The review maintains all the flaws of the original Cochrane review on vitamin C and the common cold, as published in 2004. This boils down to the blatant misuse of a minor update of a review to make a major news story that is anti-natural health."
While the researchers found only statistically insignificant evidence to suggest vitamin C could ward off the common cold or reduce its symptoms for the average person, they did find vitamin C could be effective for people engaging in intense physical exertions such as marathon runners and skiers and those exposed to extreme cold. So it wasn't all bad. And rather than completely damning vitamin C the researchers noted the trials they reviewed were of inconsistent quality, that the number of trials was low and they called for more research into the area.
They stated: "Two trials using five-day supplementation reported benefit, pointing to the need for further therapeutic trials to examine the effects of large vitamin C doses. Finally, none of the therapeutic trials carried out so far examined children, even though the regular supplementation trials reported substantially greater effect on duration in children."
While 60mg is a common Recommended Daily Amount (RDA)in many jurisdictions, levels as high as a 1000mg or more are commonly consumed.
The Cochrane Library review considered studies over several decades and included more than 11,000 people taking daily doses of more than 200mg.