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Supplements debated

Greg Lavine (The Salt Lake Tribune) -- Echinacea, St. John's Wort, Ginkgo Biloba, Vitamin E. These items and a host of other nutritional supplements are finding their way on to shelves in many grocery stores.

Tim Wood, vice president of research and development for USANA Health Sciences Inc., said a debate continues over the actual health benefits of these supplements. A resolution appears a long way off.

Some researchers seem convinced that certain supplements, when used regularly, offers a cost-effective path to good health, said Tim Wood, vice president of research and development at USANA Health Sciences Inc.

He noted that a number of studies have surveyed people on their use of nutrients, such as Vitamin E, for heart disease.

But many doctors consider nutritional supplements a waste of money, Wood said.

Wood argued those doctors are gun-shy about prescribing nutritional supplements since there is little clinical evidence to support many items. The evidence for Vitamin E, for instance, comes from epidemiological studies, those that largely rely on self-reporting.

David Roll, a professor of medicinal chemistry at the U.'s College of Pharmacy, said doctors may be suspicious of epidemiological studies due to a lack of controlled circumstances.

"Everyone likes the gold standard -- the double-blind, placebo-control study," said Roll, who did not hear Wood's lecture.

Double-blind, controlled experiments involve two subject groups. One takes the test substance while the other receives a placebo, such as a sugar pill.

The drugs behind a pharmacist's counter have undergone stringent clinical trials. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no set of standards for nutritional supplements, and Congress has passed legislation to keep supplements from FDA regulation.

Unless the pharmaceutical industry develops new guidelines, supplements may never get a fair shot, Wood said. Clinical tests to show the life-long benefits of Vitamin E would take decades and could cost millions.

The clinical tests involving hundreds of people on Vitamin E have shown little benefit to date. Wood noted that these studies involved people at risk of heart disease or those already suffering from the ailment.

Wood acknowledged that Vitamin E will not help those already afflicted with heart disease. He added that those studies did not deal with whether healthy people seeking to avoid heart disease should take the supplement.

Epidemiological studies -- which survey thousands -- point to potential long-term benefits of Vitamin E. These studies involved people who were not already suffering heart problems.

Wood also discussed the debate over calcium supplements. Some research claims that building up bone mass in adolescence helps avoid later bone problems, such as osteoporosis. He said clinical studies have not reached that conclusion. Wood suggested that instead of waiting for a definitive clinical answer that maybe people should play it safe and use the supplements.

"We're a curative-minded society. We'd rather cure a disease than prevent it," he said.

Preventive solutions can be a tough sell to people who want results quickly. Some might question the need for a supplement if they feel fine at the moment.

Roll said while some supplements may have benefits, there are plenty on the market that might be better left on the shelf.

"A high percentage of the products out there are completely irrational," he said.

Some in the U.S. health supplement industry are seeking to set their own standards to avoid FDA-imposed regulations.

(c) 2001 The Salt Lake Tribune

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