Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Book review: Natural Causes

This book scared the bejebus out of me. Natural Causes is an exposé of the politics and practices of the herbal supplement and vitamin industry. That doesn't sound so dramatic, but what author Dan Hurley is really doing is revealing the fundamental lack of sound science that lies behind the use of any "natural" supplements and vitamins. Every chapter begins with a true and tragic story of the grisly results of using the products Hurley covers, even those that are advertised as supposedly benign.

Hurley goes on to detail the utter lack of proven effectiveness of any of these items, leaving little doubt that there is absolutely no reason to be taking any of this stuff. (He does allow for the possible positive use of folic acid--with a caveat--for women trying to become pregnant, and notes that Americans, at least, are actually deficient in vitamin D, but almost nothing else comes through his analysis unscathed.)

The most surprising discussion, of course, is that of vitamin supplements, and while he does not have a vignette of someone being horribly disfigured or permanently messed up from taking too many vitamins, he quotes from a whole bunch of studies revealing that vitamins don't do much good at all.

How can this whole industry escape the notice of the FDA? Hurley explains that successful lobbying by the leaders of the supplement industry, as well as the support of Republican Orrin Hatch (whose native Utah is the headquarters for the vast majority of the supplement companies)--in addition to a PR campaign designed to scare the populace, made mincemeat of any opposition to a bill gutting the FDA's oversight of the supplement industry in the mid-1990s. Supplements, it seems, are legally considered to be neither foods nor drugs (even though in most cases they are derived from the exact same plants as the prescription drugs they are designed to emulate/replace), and therefore are now empowered by definition to fall between the jurisdictional cracks in our regulatory net. Even in the most extreme cases (like ephedra), the FDA is so hamstrung by this legislatory restriction that even the multiple deaths directly caused by the substance weren't enough to allow them to instantly pull ephedra off the shelves without a legal tussle.

Natural Causes is a frightening, necessary analysis that deserves a wide audience.

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