Monday, December 22, 2008

All Natural

Have you, like me, wandered along the "health" isles of stores like Wholefoods and marveled at the endless rows of prodigiously expensive little bottles of vitamins, potions and supplements, proclaiming in strident tones, all natural, how a meaningful life is impossible without them? Largely overweight people are to be seen sweeping them off the shelves in droves, to be glugged down later with oceans of pomegranate juice and mountains of acai berries.

I have always held a healthy skepticism towards these products, and find them in a way to be in philosophical opposition to the whole natural/organic ethos of the Wholefoods concept. I mean, piles of little machine-produced pills are scarcely commensurate with images of lambs gamboling happily in their hillside fields, free-range poultry hailing the dawn and flapping their untethered wings, lusty cattle munching on their rich prairie grasses, or plump salmon leaping the ice-cold waters of the PNW. Yet they must be remarkably popular given their abundance.

Years ago I discovered that my financial advisor was a devout believer in the benefits to be derived from the variously colored and shaped tablets. I know this because one year, for my Christmas gift thanking me for my business, I received a year's subscription to some bogus health publication in lieu of the conventional food package of nasty, rock-hard smoked cheeses and greasy little salamis of vaguely Germanic inspiration, though one finds they invariably hail from only as far as Wisconsin. Incidentally, these days, my annual gift is a donation "in my name" to some obscure charity. What it is to be compassionate. In slight disbelief, seeing as how my millions are entrusted to his stewardship, I quizzed him on this health thing. Indeed, it transpired that each morning was celebrated with a veritable witch's brew of tablets and potions designed to promote good health and long life. Gazing upon his physique, hardly to be confused with that of Johnny Weismuller, I remained skeptical.

The latest wisdom about supplements, appearing this day in the Tribune, suggests that my skepticism is well placed. Research has shown that vitamin supplements have no important benefits. A survey involving 50,000 participants showed that vitamin C, E and selenium don't reduce the risk of prostate, colorectal, lung, bladder, or pancreatic cancer. (Mulling over that intelligence is a sure-fire way to start one's day with a squirm; even the Go Lean (but not lightly) hesitates in the craw). Other studies have shown that the tabs don't afford defence against cancers, strokes or cardiovascular disease. Indeed, some of them may have effects opposite to those intended; excessive imbibition of certain vitamins can have deleterious consequences for health. It's a bit of a surprise in a way as to why these studies yield such gloomy results. It is undoubtedly true that vitamins and minerals are essential for good health. So, it would seem to be pretty simple logic that taking proper amounts as supplements should be beneficial. Yet the research does not bear that out. The problem is thought to be that it is virtually impossible to establish a true placebo group - the control group that does not receive the supplements, but instead gets a placebo. It is impossible to eliminate intake of those vitamins or minerals under study from natural sources, and thus the impact of the supplemental substances is muddied.

For all that inconsequence, their popularity grows; the total market is about $10 billion compared with only $5 billion ten years ago. For once, I feel it pays to be a cheapskate and rely on a modest, balanced diet for one's regimen of chemicals. Just as nature intended.

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