Need Vitamin D Supplements? Depends Which Newspaper You Read

Yesterday’s Times carried on its front page an article by Gina Kolata headlined “Extra vitamin D and Calcium Aren’t Necessary, Report Says.” Relevant excerpts:

The very high levels of vitamin D that are often recommended by doctors and testing laboratories – and can be achieved only by taking supplements – are unnecessary and could be harmful, an expert committee says.

And:

“The number of vitamin D tests has exploded,” said Dennis Black, a reviewer of the report who is a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.

At the same time, vitamin D sales have soared, growing faster than those of any supplement, according to The Nutrition Business Journal. Sales rose 82 percent from 2008 to 2009, reaching $430 million. “Everyone was hoping vitamin D would be kind of a panacea,” Dr. Black said. The report, he added, might quell the craze.

But the craze might not be quelled if enough people read the same day’s Wall Street Journal. The headline reads “Triple That vitamin D Intake, Panel Prescribes.” Relevant excerpts, from the article by Melinda Beck:

A long-awaited report from the Institute of Medicine to be released Tuesday triples the recommended amount of vitamin D most Americans should take every day to 600 international units from 200 IUs set in 1997.

That’s far lower than many doctors and major medical groups have been advocating-and it could dampen some of the enthusiasm that’s been building for the sunshine vitamin in recent years.

There is not as much contradiction in the two articles as the headlines might connote — but still: a lot of people read only the headlines of a story like this and then carry around that new conventional wisdom forever. (Also worth noting: neither article took into account the fact that different people in different climates have different vitamin D intake levels via the sun, which has a strong effect on how much supplemental D someone might need.)

Yesterday’s Marketplace report on the vitamin D story, meanwhile, sounds a proper note of caution. Granted, it comes from a spokesperson for a dietary-supplement trade group, Judy Blatman, but still:

We really would urge that consumers certainly read the media reports but don’t just read the headlines, read the entire thing.

Also worth remembering: a lot of readers blame journalists for misleading headlines. But almost always, at least with mainstream media, it isn’t the writer of an article but rather an editor who writes the headline.

P.S.: There’s also a Freakonomics Radio segment on yesterday’s Marketplace, about whether more expensive wines taste better than cheaper ones. You’ll hear from wine researchers Robin Goldstein and Orley Ashenfelter — and you’ll get wine-buying advice from Steve Levitt, of all people. We’re expanding the wine story into a podcast, so keep your ears open.

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  1. Vitamins for Dummies. says:

    I take my Vitamin D with a grain of salt, and a dash of vodka.

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  2. Emmy says:

    It’s important to question these supplements and sweeping recommendations. Vitamin D is suddenly flying off the shelves because researchers are saying it may prevent some cancers

    Different climates are not the only factor; if a person does or does not wear sunscreen also matters. Of course some studies may be flawed but we should never base our conclusion on just a handful of studies.

    Reports from the media probably warp the science to unrecognizable levels. The sun does not provide vitamin D; rather it allows the body to process it.

    Now you have people who may be getting enough vitamin D but not enough sunlight, or vice versa. Just imagine how difficult it is for a doctor to distinguish between the two if a vitamin D test comes back low.

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  3. Johan says:

    The sun does indeed play a part in the synthesis of vitamin D. Having plenty of sun does not by any means guarantee sufficient levels of vitamin D. In Saudi Arabia, for example, a place that definitively does not have a shortage of sun, som 80% of the population has a vitamin D deficiency.

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  4. sunshine says:

    I noticed the difference between the two newspaper reports, and thought it just might be yet another Murdoch conspiracy.

    One aspect that has not been reported on is the trade-off between increasing exsposure to the sun and the risk of skin cancers.

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  5. Emmy says:

    I’m sorry, but one more thing is bugging me: does anyone else find it bizarre, America’s obsession with health trends like single vitamins? The media is partly to blame for the headlines, but let’s have common sense.

    Why is an obese, couch-potato junk food culture being tested for vitamin D? We should get our nutrition from food. Cut out the bad stuff, eat veggies, fruit and fish. Exercise. If you can’t afford organic, eat. less. junk. It will save you money.

    Besides sunlight (which, as I said, does not provide D but rather is vital for processing it), there is the problem of bioavailability and absorption. Understand these 2 factors (which is usually ignored by doctors because it takes too much time to explain / test for) before you try to up your vitamin levels.

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  6. Pete says:

    The sun IS the only major source of vitamin d (except supplements), however, it only works if you expose the naked skin to hard UVB. So sun cream, glass, smog, clothes, cloud, buildings, the winter, all stop it working. Avoid the midday sun and you will make no vitamin d.

    Odd that the recommendations cover all races and latitudes with one value. If you live in Canada or Alaska you are not going to be making vitamin d for about 6 months a year while in Florida you can all year round.

    It is also odd that the maximum for a new born baby is 1000IU and a 220lb adult 4000IU.

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  7. Ravi says:

    Instead of sitting at home looking at supplements, we would all be better off if one just got up an hour early and exercised in the morning sun. Take jog, look around – walk the dog, if you have to.

    Not sure if it would cure cancer, but it wouldn’t make the day any worse.

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  8. Pete says:

    The other thing that is odd about this report is that it is contradicted by measured levels of vitamin d published of late that show a significant proportion of the population are severly deficient.

    As for cancer the work on colon cancer is of a high quality and shows vitamin d to be one of the easiest ways to reduce your risk.

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