To vitamin or mul-to-vitamin?

The prevailing view has been for a while that taking your daily dose of multivitamins can't hurt and will certainly benefit you. Yet every now and then research comes out stating that most vitamin supplements are not being absorbed by the body. One such last study claims that vitamin supplements may in fact have an adverse effect.

Proponents of vitamin supplements emphasize that they are the result of decades of research and that our diet is deficient in many of the supplements sold in health food stores. Furthermore, even on the hypothesis that the supplements are not all absorbed, they cannot do harm. Yet not everybody agrees with that view.

Brian Ratcliffe, a former [UK] government adviser on nutrition, accused the £600million-a-year vitamin pill industry of preying on the fears and finances of people who are essentially healthy. The tablets, on sale in every supermarket, chemist and health food shop, do little to boost health in those with no medical problems and in some cases could be dangerous. For instance, those who take fish oils as well as multivitamins could be raising their odds of brittle bones in later years because they are consuming too much vitamin A. The health-conscious should not take any supplements without first consulting their GP or another medical expert, said Professor Ratcliffe, of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. He said: 'A lot of people take supplements because they are the worried well and are concerned with taking a belt-and-braces approach to health. 'So they are not thinking very carefully about why they are taking them, how much they should be taking and whether they should be taking them at all. 'They are simply wasting their money and fuelling an industry that is to some extent exploiting their fears. Then, of course, there is a chance they are dabbling in an area where there is a potential for harm.' The professor, a former adviser to the Food Standards Agency, is not the first to raise concern about the tablets taken by 40 per cent of women and 30 per cent of men a day. Last year, a U.S. analysis of 67 studies said vitamins A and E may shorten life, not extend it. Other studies linked the two vitamins to increased risk of cancer. Even relatively small doses of vitamin A can be toxic, said the professor. The vitamin is found in many fish oil capsules, so those who take these alongside multivitamin pills may be getting more than they should. Too much vitamin A can cause nausea and headaches in the short term and raise the risk of osteoporosis in later years, the British Science Festival in Guildford heard. On the other hand, high doses of vitamin C are not harmful  -  but up to three-quarters pass straight through the body.

Herbal Dangers Cutout

Selenium Bread

Perhaps in an involuntary self-irony, The Daily Mail, the tabloid publishing the above reaction, had published just the day before an article suggesting that bread should be enriched with Selenium. Professor Steve McGrath, who authored the government-funded Rothamsted agricultural research study, considers that simply fertilizing with Selenium, (which is scarce in UK soil), would not even need new regulations. Unfortunately, Selenium is also toxic in high concentrations, most people needing only 60-75 micrograms per day. OTOH, there is even research proving a reduction in cancers and better management of HIV / AIDS for those taking such supplements.

Vitamins C & E and dementia

A while back, Dr. Kamal Masaki at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu found that boosting intake of vitamins C and E may prevent the onset of dementia caused by stroke and mental decline. The Stroke Association of UK was not as enthusiastic:

"People could do more harm than good by popping vitamin pills. They should not take them without medical advice. Vitamin C could actually increase the risk of stroke because it raises blood pressure." There were also concerns that elderly people - those most at risk of stroke - could spend money they could not afford on dietary supplements.

US panel of experts

In 2006, a US panel of experts warned that Americans may be abusing vitamins:

Dr. J. Michael McGinnis, a senior scholar with the Institute of Medicine, who chaired the panel, said, "Half of American adults are taking multivitamins and minerals and the bottom line is that we don't know for sure that they're benefiting from them." While some people may assume that taking more vitamins is okay, some state that taking too much of a certain vitamin, including Vitamin A and Iron, can be toxic.

Several tests performed by and released by MSNBC in 2007 have found some alarming results:

Of 21 brands of multivitamins on the market in the United States and Canada selected by and tested by independent laboratories, just 10 met the stated claims on their labels or satisfied other quality standards. Most worrisome, according to president Dr. Tod Cooperman, is that one product, The Vitamin Shoppe Multivitamins Especially for Women, was contaminated with lead. "I was definitely shocked by the amount of lead in [this] woman's product," he said. "We've never seen that much lead in a multivitamin before." Other products contained more or less of a particular vitamin than listed on the label. And some did not dissolve in the correct amount of time, meaning they could potentially pass through the body without being fully absorbed. "Half the products were fine, half were not," said Cooperman. (…)

The analysis also showed that Hero Nutritionals Yummi Bears, a multivitamin for children, had 216 percent of the labelled amount of vitamin A in the retinol form, delivering 5,400 International Units (IU) in a daily serving. That's substantially more than the upper tolerable level set by the Institute of Medicine of 2,000 IU for kids ages 1 to 3 and 3,000 IU for those 4 to 8. Because too much vitamin A can cause bone weakening and liver abnormalities, the Yummi Bears "could be potentially doing more harm than good," Cooperman said. "Vitamin A is one of those vitamins where you really don't want to get too much." (…) The report also found that some vitamins didn't break apart within the 30-minute standard set by the United States Pharmacopeia. Nature's Plus Especially Yours for women required more than an hour to disintegrate, while AARP Maturity Formula took 50 minutes. These products "could potentially go through your body without releasing all the nutrients," Cooperman said.

Vita-women & M.D. men

The latest study paints an even bleaker picture:

In a study that followed more than 160,000 older U.S. women, the researchers found that the 41 percent who used multivitamins were neither less likely to develop cancer or heart disease over eight years nor to have a lower overall death rate. About half of Americans routinely use a dietary supplement, often a multivitamin, and studies show that one of the primary motivations is the belief that supplements will protect them from chronic diseases. However, the current findings suggest that, at least for postmenopausal women, multivitamin use "does not confer meaningful benefit or harm" when it comes to cancer and heart disease, the investigators report in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The team, led by Dr. Marian L. Neuhouser of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, asks, "Why do millions of Americans use a daily multivitamin for chronic disease prevention when the supporting scientific data are weak?"

That study conclusion is clear: there is no difference between multivitamin users and non-users when it comes to lifespan, rates of cancer or cardiovascular problems. But there is hope:

There is an ongoing clinical trial of U.S. male doctors looking at whether multivitamins lower the risks of cancer, heart disease and other chronic ills after the age of 50, Neuhouser and her colleagues point out. Such clinical trials are considered the "gold standard" for proving cause-and-effect; the current study, in contrast, was an observational one -- looking at women's reported behaviours and their subsequent rates of disease.

Monopolistic clouds hanging over vitamin production

Perhaps the most compelling reason against using multivitamin supplements is – at least for some people such as myself – the issues of monopoly, conspiracy and price-fixing surrounding micronutrients. Back in 1973, Roche’s World Product Manager in Basel contacted EEC with evidence that Roche had been breaking antitrust laws, engaging in market sharing for vitamins with its competitors. Roche was fined, but EEC also released Adams’ name to Roche, causing him to get arrested two times and his wife to commit suicide. In 1999, La Roche paid a $500 million fine while BASF paid $225 million after a US DoJ investigation. That second conspiracy had started in 1990 and ended in February 1999. Here is the statement of Assistant AG Joel I. Kline (May 20, 1999):

Let me be clear about this: contrary to what some have suggested, these kinds of cartels are by no means transient or unstable. They are powerful and sophisticated and, without intervention by antitrust authorities, will often go on indefinitely.

Indeed, during the past several years the Division has uncovered international cartels operating in a broad spectrum of commerce, including food and feed additives, chemicals, graphite electrodes (used in steel making), and marine construction and transportation services. In many of the prosecutions, the conspirator corporations were fined tens of millions of dollars -- ADM was fined $100 million for its role in the lysine and citric acid conspiracy; UCAR paid a $110 million fine for its participation in the graphite electrodes conspiracy; and SGL recently agreed to pay a $135 million for its role in the graphite electrodes conspiracy -- prior to today, the largest antitrust fine in history. This fiscal year alone, which is less than 2/3 over, we have already secured more than $900 million in criminal fines: more than three times our previous annual record; in fact, more than the total amount of fines in the entire history of U.S. antitrust enforcement.

Fines of this magnitude are absolutely necessary if we are going to deter these illegal cartels. It is now clear that, at least with respect to this conspiracy, even $100 million fines were not an adequate deterrent. Indeed, the members of the vitamin cartel, including Hoffman- LaRoche, continued to regularly meet and carry out their global agreement even while Hoffmann-LaRoche was being investigated, prosecuted, and fined $14 million in March 1997 for participating in the citric acid cartel.

In his The Nation article, Jock Ferguson shed some light on the monopolistic practices of La Roche, as told by John Peters, a Californian farmer:

For years in Madera County in the valley north of Fresno, John Peters turned vitamins and minerals into formulas that farmers blended into feed grain and fed to their chickens, hogs and cattle. Such nutritional additives mean quicker-growing animals and more profits for farmers. While it used to take chickens nine weeks to reach broiler size, now they gorge themselves on vitamin-enriched feed and in just six weeks are ready to leap onto global dinner plates.

But Peters said that his vitamin premix business is now in trouble. The chicken side is being gobbled up by vitamin makers Hoffmann-La Roche of Switzerland and BASF of Germany, and he expects that the rest of his premix business will soon follow. Last summer, Peters said, Roche refused to sell him a key feed ingredient because he would not buy all his vitamins from it, and then proceeded to underbid him with longtime customers. In Texas, Missouri and Minnesota, other small-animal nutritional businesses are facing a similar death squeeze at the hands of Roche and BASF, industry sources said.

Yes, these are the same two global giants that masterminded the most rapacious price-fixing cartel in modern business history during the 1990s and got nailed with the largest criminal fines ever levied. Roche paid $954 million and BASF more than $500 million after entering guilty pleas with the US Department of Justice, Canada, Australia and the European Union.

When the cartel was exposed in 1999, Roche, BASF and Rhône-Poulenc (now Aventis) -- which escaped charges because it was the first cartel member to cooperate with the DOJ -- controlled about 75 percent of the $6-billion-a-year global vitamin business. They had used their industry dominance to pressure at least twelve smaller vitamin makers in Europe and Asia into an arrangement that top executives had taken to calling "Vitamins Inc."

But now, three years after the cartel was exposed, instead of having been reined in, Roche, BASF and Aventis/CVC (in November Aventis sold its vitamin business to CVC Capital Partners of London for an undisclosed sum) are close to grabbing a near-monopoly in the global production and distribution of vitamins, having increased their dominance to at least 85 percent of the global market.

A new term has appeared in the vernacular: “denied access marketing”:

They make the vitamins and then they sell them; there is no way anybody else can come into the animal feed market, so they'll make back in a few years' time all they lost in fines and settlements."

"Denied access marketing" is another weapon being used by Roche and BASF to drive the few remaining vitamin premixers out of business, sources said. Independents said that if they bought bulk vitamins from Chinese vitamin makers they sometimes had difficulty getting delivery of other vitamins from Roche and BASF. Four sources cited the recent example of biotin (vitamin H) -- which helps broiler chickens and hogs absorb key nutrients from feed and consequently speeds up growth. An ongoing supposed shortage of biotin resulted in a price jump from $950 per kilogram in 2000 to over $6,500 per kilogram recently, said a source with strong connections to Chinese companies. Roche, which is now believed to control more than 70 percent of the biotin market, then used the shortages as a reason to deny biotin to independent premixers who buy some of their vitamins from Chinese companies.

La Roche was so fierce and aggressive that it was one of the few corporations to ever stave off Chinese competition:

Reduced prices have also been used in other ways to advance the companies' goals. Roche and BASF have on occasion charged artificially low prices in order to make it difficult for the Chinese or anyone else to take business away from their established customers in North America and Europe, industry sources said.

For example, the synthetic version of vitamin E, which cost about $17 per kilogram during the cartel days -- when prices were inflated -- today costs around $6.30 in the United States and Europe. It costs the Chinese about $5.35 per kilogram to make synthetic vitamin E, plus shipping, making it almost impossible for them to make a profit.

A similar situation obtains with regard to vitamin A, industry sources said. "When I go to market material I can get from China, Roche drops the price below Chinese costs and keeps it there until the Chinese drop out," said one industry source.

We are all potential customers. Prepare for some blunt qualifiers:

One of the biggest new areas for vitamin makers is in the production of healthier "functional foods" for the blimped-up planet. Giants such as Philip Morris, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Heinz, Pillsbury and PepsiCo realize there is now good money to be made from the very people they've helped fatten up with foods emptied of nutrients during processing.

So could China be beaten so easily? What about their persistent dreams of restoring China’s power and prestige?

There are also concerns emerging that some Chinese vitamin makers may be tiring of their uphill struggle for market share with the three giants, a problem exacerbated by the withdrawal of Chinese government financial support as it prepared to join the World Trade Organization. Some Chinese companies are known to be chatting with the giants over the possibility of becoming contract suppliers with guaranteed annual volumes in exchange for abandoning aggressive export sales in North America and Europe.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the vitamin cartel prosecutions continues. Many large cartel victims are still in court in Washington, seeking more than $1 billion in damages from cartel members, who could walk away with close to $5 billion in profits from the global price-fixing scam after paying all fines and damages.

But as often happens in global business, plaintiffs are stuck buying their vitamins from the defendants because there are no alternate suppliers. "The vitamins case appears to be one in which crime did pay," said Purdue University professor John Connor in his new book Global Price Fixing. So where will this all lead? The DOJ has convened more than thirty grand juries across America to probe other global business sectors -- primarily in food, agriculture and pharmaceuticals -- for price-fixing offenses.

Attempts over the past decade to address the widespread global corporate cartel culture by creating an international antitrust enforcement agency as an offshoot of the World Trade Organization have been defeated by pressure from the corporate sector in North America and Europe. It will likely take the exposure of several more damaging global cartels before the political climate will change and tough new regulations-like those now possible in the accounting world-will be implemented to protect national economies, farmers and consumers.

Later news from 2007 – 2008 point out that rather than constantly fighting as the underdog, China has adopted the same monopoly tactics that prevented its access to market and has simply learned to play the game from the Swiss masters.

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a critical food preservative and a favourite vitamin all over the world. But now 80 percent of it is made in [China] — a place that has come under fire recently for quality control. And there are concerns that with the price of Vitamin C rising and a near monopoly on its production and export, the world is now too dependent on this one country for this essential nutrient.

As the CSM investigation revealed, China has managed to ensure the much more lucrative Vitamin C monopoly.

Only one Western company, DSM of the Netherlands, still makes ascorbic acid, concentrating production in Scotland since shutting down its US plant two years ago. Chinese firms have driven all other competitors out of business. “They have virtually captured the lot, unbeknown to most people,” says Leo Hepner, a London-based management consultant to the food and pharmaceutical industry. “It puts us in a very difficult situation if, say, they stopped making it.” (…)

Ironically, the Chinese became the dominant exporters of vitamin C only after the US Department of Justice charged six Western companies with price fixing in 1999. The so-called “vitamin cartel,” which supplied 75 percent of the world’s vitamins, was convicted and ordered to pay $1.5 billion in fines and restitution. Some executives received jail sentences. One of the largest fines was against Hoffmann-LaRoche of Switzerland. It eventually sold its vitamin subsidiary to DSM. Until two years ago, DSM produced ascorbic acid in New Jersey. But the market was flooded with Chinese-made vitamin C. The price dropped to as low as $2 per kilo. DSM shifted its production to Scotland. While the firms of the “vitamin cartel” colluded, the Chinese vitamin C industry was growing. Chinese leaders decided decades earlier that increased production of vitamins was critical to their countrymen’s health. Chinese manufacturers were then well placed to take advantage of the breakup of the vitamin cartel, says Peter Kovacs, formerly CEO of NutraSweet Kelco and now a consultant to the food industry. They moved into the world market, taking market share by cutting prices, he says.

In Asian culture, much like in Libertarian / Austrian Economic School thinking, monopoly battles are not seen as a cancer that needs to be excised, but rather as a normal way of doing business. The tendency toward monopoly is natural and a monopolistic situation is the price conferred to the victor for hard work and years of eliminating competition through dumping. It should thus come as no surprise that the Chinese government intervened on behalf of its four manufacturers in a price-fixing trial:

China's government is defending in a New York court four Chinese vitamin manufacturers that acted together to boost prices of their exports, in an unprecedented move that could affect international antitrust disputes.

The four companies captured the market for vitamin C after years of undercutting rivals with low prices. It is a pattern that has repeated itself in dozens of markets in recent years, bringing higher prices for Chinese-made products from drugs to sweeteners to steelmaking materials.

The wholesale price of vitamin C rose from about $3 a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, in 2001 to $8 or more in 2003; it has fluctuated since then, reaching as high as about $11 a kilogram last year.

The unusual friend-of-the-court filing by China's Ministry of Commerce in the case suggests that China is willing to back these coordinated efforts to raise prices. The civil case could become a test of whether its manufacturers are subject to the same rules of competition that apply to global rivals, at a time when China seeks to move to a more market-based economy.

Some of the vitamin makers in the case are former state-owned companies. China enacted for the first time its own antitrust rules this year, restricting monopolistic practices, including price fixing. The penalties, however, are generally civil, not criminal, and don't address export pricing. (…)

China's defence is based on the doctrine of sovereign immunity: If a government orders a company to take a specific action, it generally is considered an act of state that can't be prosecuted in foreign courts. In his Nov. 7 ruling, Judge Trager effectively rejected that stance, finding enough evidence to go to trial. No date has been set. (…)

That stance, if upheld, would protect them from lawsuits under sovereign immunity, much like the protections enjoyed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The cartel's members act as sovereign states, not companies. Without that protection, foreign companies can face criminal prosecution or civil suits in U.S. courts if any illegal conduct is found to hurt U.S. consumers. (…)

"The Chinese priced their product so low, for so long, it drove everyone else out," Mr. Brown said. "When they took over the market, the price increases started." He said Resco bought 800 tons of magnesite from China last month for $1,200 a ton, up 50% from its last order in July.

In court filings, China's magnesite producers didn't dispute that they discussed prices and offered the same defense as vitamin C makers: They didn't violate the law because they acted under government authority.

While the beneficial effect of vitamin supplements may be debatable, the economic damage caused by purchasing a monopolistic product has been proven beyond doubt.

Apart from the aforementioned issues, in this day & age vitamin abuse could come from unexpected sources. More precisely, are you absolutely sure that the little blue pill you bought from that Canadian website is really what’s written on the box, and not some Chinese-made “harmless” vitamin?!? I dont know

Sources / More info: se-bread, no-vitamin, china-monopoly, hoffman-monopoly, wsj-china-defends, vitamin-giants-sequel, vitamin-cartel-price-fixing, global-price-fixing, vitamins-cure-con, vitamins-not, vitamins-excess, vitamins-harm, wiki-vitamins, wiki-selenium, vitamins-dementia, vitamins-cancer, csm-china-vitamin-c

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Vitamins and Minerals, 3rd Edition by D.C., Ph.D., C.C.N., Alan H. Pressman and Sheila Buff (Paperback - Mar 6, 2007) (.CA, .UK, .FR, .DE, .JP, .cn) Roche Versus Adams by Stanley Adams (Paperback - Jan 28, 1985) (.CA, .UK, .FR, .DE, .JP, .cn) Global Price Fixing: Our Customers are the Enemy (Studies in Industrial Organization) by John M. Connor (Hardcover - Jun 15, 2001) (.CA, .UK, .FR, .DE, .JP, .cn) Efficiency and Justice in European Antitrust Enforcement by Wouter P. J. Wils (Hardcover - Mar 14, 2008) (.CA, .UK, .FR, .DE, .JP, .cn)


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