PBS Frontline Hit Piece on Vitamins and Supplements

Story at-a-glance

  • PBS Frontline’s “Supplements and Safety” episode expresses concern that consumers may endanger their health by taking vitamins and supplements, yet promoted “Cheez-it cheesy chicken bites” and Dr. Pepper
  • Last November, the agency responsible for the report, CBC News, published a report in which they accused a number of supplement makers of failing to live up to label claims. Yet, last week CBC had to retract the report, as their lab tests were proven inaccurate
  • There’s an ongoing campaign aimed at regulating supplements as drugs, which would allow the drug industry to eliminate the supplement industry and profit from the few remaining ones


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

Dietary supplements are big business. In the U.S., sales totaled nearly $37 billion in 2014. According to estimates by the National Institutes of Health (NIH),1 more than one-third of all Americans take some form of dietary supplement in any given month.

Among seniors over the age of 71, 48 percent of women and 43 percent of men use them. Other estimates2 place the number of supplement users in the U.S. as high as 69 percent.

Vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements have a tremendously safe track record, yet they are often singled out as being potentially dangerous3,4 by government agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and others.

For many years now, an organized campaign has been waged against supplements, with the aim of regulating them as drugs rather than food, as is currently the case. Canadian Broadcast News (CBC) News, The New York Times, and PBS/Frontline all appear to be part of this campaign.5

If you thought PBS was above such shenanigans, think again. If you've been a regular viewer of PBS, you've likely noticed the increase in sponsored messages over the last few years, and among these "underwriters," as they're now called,6 you have Monsanto, Pfizer, and Merck, just to name a few.

If you have ever supported PBS in the past I would hope you seriously reconsider and refrain from donating any money to an organization that has clearly demonstrated they are nothing more than an industry shill and could not care less about your health.

PBS Frontline Goes to Bat Against the Supplement Industry While Promoting Junk Food

Most recently, Frontline aired a program focused on the concern that consumers may endanger their health by taking vitamins and supplements. What I saw struck me as a solid confirmation that PBS is not at all interested in your health.

Their supposed consumer assistance program begins with a recipe ad for "Cheez-it cheesy chicken bites" and Dr. Pepper. Coat factory farmed chicken breast with Cheez-its, bake it in the oven, and wash it down with some soda!

For an investigative journalism piece supposedly concerned about the health and well-being of consumers, this strikes me as irrational, unless PBS and Frontline were shilling for the Junk Food and Big Pharma industry.

Immediately after that industry shilling commercial, a concerned individual asks how someone could sell a product that isn't safe or effective. Ambulances and doctors flash across the screen, with all the drama and frenzy surrounding a deadly plane crash.

Well, I would hardly consider CAFO chicken, Cheez-its and Dr. Pepper "safe," and at least the latter two are hardly "effective" as they are deceptively disguised as food when in fact they're no such thing.

They're processed food-like products that bear no resemblance to real food, chockfull of sugars and synthetic food additives scientifically proven to cause metabolic dysfunction and other health problems, not to mention food addiction.

There is no question in my mind that these foods have likely contributed to the premature death of many millions of people while the supplements PBS is so concerned about have not even been incriminated in one single death.

CBC Retracts Report on Supplements

Last November, CBC News published a Marketplace report7 in which they claimed a number of supplement makers had essentially ripped off their customers by failing to live up to the claims on their labels.

On January 21, they RETRACTED8 the report, as their tests were proven inaccurate. Sadly, by that time the damage was already done. As reported by CBC News:9

"Last fall, Marketplace commissioned lab testing for samples of fish oil, vitamin C and protein powder supplements to see if consumers are actually getting what they pay for...

However, subsequent re-testing of the samples has found that the lab results and analysis provided to Marketplace were incorrect, and that there is no evidence of problems with those products...

In response to the discovery, Marketplace is evaluating its protocols around the use of lab testing.

In a report to be broadcast on Marketplace on Friday [January 22] ... host Erica Johnson says, 'We regret giving you incorrect information and any harm it may have caused the companies in our report ...'" [Emphasis mine]

Biased Journalism Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

It's one thing for the testing to be faulty and inaccurate, but shouldn't responsible journalists provide test results to those they are accusing before publishing to prevent these errors in the first place?

My guess is their goal was to obtain incriminating test data and publish it as soon as possible.

Accuracy was secondary, but in this case they got caught with their pants down — and hopefully one or more of the companies caught in this smear campaign sues them for the damage caused by their carelessness.

The New York Times also published a hit piece against supplements last year in which they failed to double-check the veracity of the lab results they reported on. As recently noted by NewHope360:10

"When the New York attorney general's office announced its sting operation last February against the four biggest supplements retailers, the Times was right there with the story.

It took a rival story in The New Yorker11 to point out the obvious — that the test used (DNA barcoding) was inappropriate for testing botanical extracts, had in fact been roundly criticized a year earlier by academia and industry alike when DNA was first used in a published study to study extracts."

Quality Variations Exist in Every Industry

Let's be clear, I'm not here to defend the entire supplement industry.

There's a wide range of quality in the supplement business, as in every other industry, and you'd be wise to think twice before taking "gas station" supplements that promise to increase your sex drive, give you the body of a super-model, or jolt you awake for the next several hours.

Many of these products are pharmaceuticals disguised as supplements, already illegal by existing regulations - yet most of these reports repeatedly lie and refer to the supplement industry as "unregulated". But just because there are a few low integrity companies doesn't mean that the entire industry is acting fraudulently.

In fact, since Americans began taking supplements back in the 1940s, not a single death has been reported as a result. The same cannot be said for drugs, which is the "safety model" they now want supplements to conform to.

Throughout Frontline's program, the FDA is featured as an inept organization. Peculiarly, they also encourage more FDA regulation, implying if supplements are more like drugs they'd be safe. If the FDA is inept, why would we want them to regulate supplements like drugs, which have a proven hazard record?

Supplements Have an Enviable Safety Record

Even when taken as prescribed, drugs kill an estimated 106,000 Americans each year,12 and that's using decades-old data. Today more people use more drugs, so the death toll is far higher. Given that, one could easily argue that we need much more stringent regulations on drugs.

The same cannot be said for supplements. Data provided in a 2012 report13 by the U.K.-based Alliance for Natural Health International, showed that adverse reactions to pharmaceutical drugs are 62,000 times more likely to kill you than food supplements.

More recent data again confirms the safety of supplements. As announced by the Orthomolecular Medicine News Service14 on January 3rd:

"There were no deaths whatsoever from vitamins in the year 2014. The 32nd annual report15 from the American Association of Poison Control Centers shows zero deaths from multiple vitamins. And, there were no deaths whatsoever from vitamin A, niacin, vitamin B-6, any other B-vitamin. There were no deaths from vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, or from any vitamin at all."

The one thing that can be conclusively said about supplements is that they may be the safest category for any consumable product, regardless of the specific cases highlighted by Frontline. On the whole, junk food and drugs are FAR more likely to harm or kill you.

War on Supplements Infographic Preview

Drugs have addicted this nation, destroyed families, and even when properly prescribed they kill over 100,000 people every year. Tylenol alone kills nearly 500 people annually, and ironically the supplement NAC is used to save the lives of those poisoned. So, to make supplements safer, we should make the inept FDA regulate them as drugs that kill tens of thousands each year? Quite the logic!

Also, it bears repeating that supplements are in fact already regulated by both the FDA16 and the Federal Trade Commission17 (FTC) — the former regulating both the finished product and individual ingredients, and the latter regulating the advertising of supplements. So while not regulated as drugs, but rather as a food, they are fully regulated.

Should 'Big Brother' Eliminate Low Quality Options?

In all industries there is a wide range of quality and a wide array of consumer options, and as the old saying goes, "you get what you pay for". However, in the case of supplements, the most likely outcome of taking a low quality product is that it won't give you any benefits, while a drug could very easily kill you. So is it now the government's job to eliminate low quality options?

If so, they'd have to completely redo the school lunch program and empty most grocery store shelves. I doubt Pepsi, Coke, Kraft and all the other junk food purveyors would allow that to happen.

Whatever happened to choice? I advocate that people take control of their health, because the more power we abdicate to the federal government, the more easily influenced they get by the people and the industries with the most money. The entire supplement industry doesn't even earn what Pepsi makes in a year, and cannot in any way compete with the drug industry in terms of profits. In short, it has virtually no political clout whatsoever.

Is it really a good idea to give the drug industry the power to "improve" supplements? I think there's plenty of evidence to show this campaign against supplements to be a deliberate plan to ensure supplements become regulated like drugs, which would put the drug industry in a perfect position to eliminate the supplement industry altogether, and what few supplements remain would become prohibitively expensive. This benefits no one, with the exception of the drug industry.

The Problem With Fish Oil Also Applies to Cooking Oils

Fish oil takes a good beating in Frontline's program, and while the review is clearly biased, they do make at least one relevant point regarding rancidity.

Still, they fail to take in the big picture. Oils are quite perishable, and if they were alarmed at the rancidity of fish oils, they would outright faint were they to test all the vegetable oils that line the shelves of every grocery store and can sit for months or years in people's cabinets!

If rancid (oxidized) fish oil is bad, rancid vegetable oils are undoubtedly worse: a) because people consume far more of them, b) because processed vegetable oils are harmful even when fresh and c) polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) found in vegetable oils are much more unstable and susceptible to oxidation than fish oil, and their health effects far more concerning.18

I don't think anyone is surprised to learn that oils are quite perishable; that's why the food industry started hydrogenating vegetable oils, which then subjected the public to deadly heart disease via trans fats. This fact was finally recognized by the FDA, which has now removed partially hydrogenated oils from the list of GRAS ingredients.

Extracted oils must be carefully handled and preserved to prevent rancidity. This is why I specifically use more expensive capsules than softgels for my krill oil. These hard capsules resist oxygen penetration that would oxidize the oil. The capsules are also filled under a nitrogen blanket, which helps ensure freshness and prevent oxidation. (On top of that, krill also contains astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant that also helps protect the oil from rancidity.)

My krill supplier also noted the following in a correspondence regarding this issue:

"Allow me also to point out that originally PV and anisidine values were set to guarantee consumers of vegetable oils, such as olive and sun-seed oil, an acceptable quality of taste and smell (at time of purchasing). Thus, this was not set as any type of safety precaution. Only later, based on in vitro type experiments on cell cultures, did suggestions emerge about health effects of rancid lipids.

However, until today, nobody has been able to demonstrate any adverse health effects of ingesting rancid oils. (Please see the attached paper19 from 2012 where human ingestion of rancid fish oil (poor souls) gave no established markers of oxidative stress). The fish oil trade association added details from the interview (from what I understand, Frontline basically cut any positive points made to ensure this one-sided story prevailed)."

That said, I do NOT encourage you to consume rancid oils of any kind, including omega-3 oils, and I've strongly cautioned against it in the past. It's a sensible precaution, even if some of the research has failed to find demonstrable adverse effects.

One last point regarding Frontline's omega-3 segment: according to the United Natural Products Alliance, Amarin Pharma — the sole manufacturer of prescription-strength omega-3 — has launched a PR campaign employing doctors to raise doubts about the quality and safety of regular omega-3 supplements.

So while the program disparaged fish oil supplements on the one hand — falsely stating that there's no evidence of health benefits20 — Frontline still compared pharmaceutical-grade fish oil to supplement fish oil, leaving the viewer with the impression that if you do want to use an omega-3 supplement after all, you should use pharmaceutical grade. The problem is that the prescription version is far more expensive.

Frontline Is Severely Conflicted and Lacking Transparency

Thirty-three minutes into the program, Merck's mouthpiece, Dr. Paul Offit, is featured front and center. But there was no disclosure about the millions of dollars he's received from Merck, or that his chair at the University of Pennsylvania is sponsored by Merck. As usual, Offit makes some really embarrassing statements, starting with "do you get enough vitamins from food, the answer is yes."

Yet, look at what the majority of Americans eat — i.e. the same kind of absolute JUNK advertised at the beginning of the program! If Cheez-it covered CAFO chicken and Dr. Pepper is on your menu, I can virtually guarantee you're not getting adequate nutrition.

There's also the issue of fortified foods such as cereals, breads, and other items. Fortified foods are a source of "added" or supplemental vitamins and minerals in most people's diets, and if dietary supplements are dangerous, might not fortified foods pose a hazard as well? Moreover, if vitamins and minerals were to be regulated as drugs, where do fortified foods fall?

The program also attempts to portray fortified milk as a good source of vitamin D rather than taking a vitamin D supplement. In truth, we should be getting our vitamin D from the sun. With sun exposure, you can make thousands of IUs in minutes yet the body has a way of regulating from excess. Also, saying that pasteurized CAFO milk is a natural source of vitamin D is flat out incorrect. It's fortified, and not a natural source.

They also cite a bowl of fortified cereal as a good everyday source of B12 — completely ignoring the health harming effects of this highly processed, completely unnatural sugary product. Meanwhile, modern medicine injects 1 gram of B12 at a time, which amounts to 166 bowls of cereal.

Nowhere in this program do they mention that our foods have become much less nutritious than in centuries past, largely as a result of industrial agriculture practices that have depleted the soils of valuable minerals and nutrients. Additionally, crops are bred for maximum yields, not maximum nutrition. It is impossible to truthfully state that most Americans obtain sufficient nutrition from their diet.

The U.S. is filled to the brim with overweight, sick people, and to make people believe their standard processed diet is nutritious and healthy is misleading if not outright dangerous.

Besides that, Offit probably isn't the best expert advice you can get on this issue, considering his deep connections to the drug industry. Nor is he necessarily the most honest. A few years back, Offit, just like Frontline, was caught having borne "false witness." As noted in the Orange County Register:21

"An OC Register article ... entitled 'Dr. Paul Offit Responds' contained several disparaging statements that Dr. Offit of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia made about CBS News Investigative Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson and her report. Upon further review, it appears that a number of Dr. Offit's statements, as quoted in the OC Register article, were unsubstantiated and/or false ...

Unsubstantiated statements include: Offit's claim that Attkisson 'lied'; and Offit's claim that CBS News sent a 'mean spirited and vituperative' email 'over the signature of Sharyl Attkisson' stating 'You're clearly hiding something.'

In fact, the OC Register has no evidence to support those claims. Further, Offit told the OC Register that he provided CBS News 'the details of his relationship, and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's relationship, with pharmaceutical company Merck.'

However, documents provided by CBS News indicate Offit did not disclose his financial relationships with Merck, including a $1.5 million Hilleman chair he sits in that is co-sponsored by Merck..." [Emphasis mine]

May Common Sense Prevail

If you were to believe Frontline, your path to optimal health would be lined with Cheez-its, sugar-laden junk food (ah, but fortified with a vitamin or two!), and soda. Don't forget the soda. Just stay away from dietary supplements! They just might kill you. If you're like me, you see right through this nonsense. And maybe like me you will consider letting PBS know you'll be canceling future donations, knowing they're shilling for the junk food industry and Big Pharma.


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