Picking on Cherry-Picking

May 12, 2010

Reader's Digest's April issue ran a story that rankled many, not only in the dietary supplements community but the general public at large, judging by the article's feedback. The cover story, titled "The Vitamin Scam," went on to put down a number of well-researched vitamins, such as multivitamins and vitamin C, essentially claiming that for most people, taking these supplements is not really beneficial.

Originally Published NO May 2010

Reader's Digest's April issue ran a story that rankled many, not only in the dietary supplements community but the general public at large, judging by the article's feedback. The cover story, titled "The Vitamin Scam," went on to put down a number of well-researched vitamins, such as multivitamins and vitamin C, essentially claiming that for most people, taking these supplements is not really beneficial.

Some readers were upset by cavalier, broad-sweeping statements made by the author such as, "Once upon a time, you believed in the tooth fairy...And you figured that taking vitamins was good for you. Oh, it's painful when another myth gets shattered." Others point out that the author makes such declarations while failing to cite the vast body of other research that supports the health benefits of these supplements. As one reader commented: "Reader's Digest discussed only science that it chose to discuss. Cherry-picking science is bad science."

Douglas MacKay, ND, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, said in response to the article, "The article fails to put the science into perspective, cherry-picking through the scientific literature and, as the article concludes, providing the 'Reader's Digest Version' to what should be a more-thorough explanation of the role of vitamins."

This isn't the first Reader's Digest article to slam vitamins. Check out an article titled "The Vitamin Hoax: 10 Not to Take" that ran in the publication's November 2007 issue. Also, the Reader's Digest journalist certainly isn't the first journalist to negatively sensationalize dietary supplements. (There are many theories floating around about why this might be so, including the existence of pharmaceutical advertisers.) This past December, the general media widely publicized a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) claiming that Ginkgo biloba failed to slow the rate of cognitive decline-a study that those in the botanicals community pointed out wasn't even initially designed to reach that conclusion. Yet, despite the controversy surrounding the study, on the NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams stated: "Now a major study shows one of the most popular supplements flat out does not work." (Italics added by me.)

Are such incendiary statements irresponsible? They are, if based on bad science reporting, readers are turned away from using nutrient supplements that may actually benefit them. Unfortunately, such statements are also the tendency of the media. In an editorial that he guest wrote for the March/April 2009 issue of Alternative Therapies, the American Botanical Council's Mark Blumenthal quoted Walter Cronkite in saying, "A story called 'All the Planes Landed Safely Last Night' is not a story." (Unlike the Reader's Digest article, Blumenthal's well-researched article on nutrient science is definitely worth reading.)

It's some of these thoughts that we address in this issue's cover story, "Back to Basics." The faulty JAMA study on ginkgo is just one example of how botanicals science is still changing, improving, expanding-and thus why it's necessary to temper negative, forgone conclusions with some perspective about how clinical trials are conducted nowadays, as well as the collective evidence supporting a nutrient.

Responsible reporting: It's what all of us, including we here at Nutritional Outlook, should be striving for.