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Powerful Choices Podcast: The Scoop on Supplements

July 2010

Colleen: Hello and welcome to the American Cancer Society’s Powerful Choices Podcast series, where you'll get the information you need to make everyday choices that can help you be healthy and stay well. I’m Colleen Doyle, the American Cancer Society’s director of nutrition and physical activity. Thanks so much for joining us.

Here at the American Cancer Society, we receive a lot of questions about dietary supplements – vitamins, herbs, and the like – and cancer. You may have heard that a certain herb can reduce your risk of getting a specific cancer. You may have even heard certain compounds can purportedly “cure cancer.” There is a lot of misinformation about supplements out there, whether from natural food stores, Internet purveyors, or even well-intentioned friends and family.

Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, is here to address some common misconceptions about dietary supplements and offer some guidelines for choosing supplements safely. Len, thanks so much for joining us.

Slide: Dr. Len’s Corner

Len: Thanks, Colleen. Because supplements aren’t considered drugs, they’re not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means they are not put through the same strict safety and effectiveness requirements as other medicines.

As a result, you can’t necessarily trust what’s on a label. In fact, some products have been found to be tainted with germs, pesticides, and toxic heavy metals. Still others were found to contain more or less of a compound than the labels indicated. In short, taking supplements without first talking to a doctor can adversely affect your health, especially if you have certain health conditions to begin with.

However, there’s a lot we’re still learning about supplements and cancer risk. Some studies have found that there might be a protective benefit from certain supplements, but large-scale studies haven’t been able to confirm definitive links.

One of the vitamins I get asked about a lot is vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin. Some studies have found that that people who have higher levels of vitamin D in the body may have a lower risk of getting some types of cancer, but more research is needed to determine whether vitamin D is the cause. If a link is discovered, studies would also need to determine whether intake of vitamin D above the recommended daily value has a protective effect.

Colleen: Thanks, Len. Certainly some supplements are helpful for some people, such as pregnant women or people who for whatever reason, aren’t able to consume enough nutrients through food. Do you have any guidelines for choosing one safely?

Len: Before you start taking a supplement, talk to your doctor about whether it is safe for you. And be sure to investigate the company that makes the supplement before you buy it. Be wary of grandiose claims. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Look on the label at the percent daily value (you’ll see %-d-v) –pick a supplement that provides no more than 100% of the daily value (DV) for each vitamin and mineral. Supplements that provide a lot more than 100% of the daily value can cause health problems. Also, it’s good to keep in mind that a generic brand (ike a store brand) usually works just as well as a name brand supplement – and can be a lot less expensive.

Slide: Before taking supplements:

  • Talk with your doctor
  • Be wary of claims that sound too good to be true
  • Look for products that provide no more than 100% of the Daily Value for each nutrient

Colleen: Thank you so much, Len. For more information on other things you can do to stay well and reduce your cancer risk, go to cancer.org or call us any time at 1-800-227-2345. From all of us here at the American Cancer Society, thanks for watching.