Results are not in on emerging phytonutrients


About once every six months, an Interior Design Nutritionals (IDN) sales agent tries to sell me on selling its dietary supplements.

I've received audiotapes, videotapes, promotional brochures, research abstracts and health letters which presumably support the IDN position that you really need supplements to be healthy.

IDN is so persuasive that it even sold local doctors on selling the products to their patients. Does this seem a little unfair? If your doctor "prescribes" a particular supplement, are you going to ignore your doctor's advice? And remember, doctors will have been trained to sell by the same folks who were clever enough to sell them.

Q: Is there anything harmful about these products?

A: If you eat a well-balanced diet, exercise regularly and practice good health habits such as not smoking and using alcohol in moderation, and if you have money to spare, using IDN supplements will not harm you. However, they are not magic. If you eat a lousy diet, smoke, drink too much and refuse to exercise, they won't save you, either.

Q: So what's wrong with the products?

A: Besides being pretty expensive, their line appears so complete, you might not work on eating well any more. Pills are just so easy!

But a supplement contains only what humans put into it.

Among the most recent nutritional discoveries are phytochemicals or phytonutrients, newly uncovered elements in plants which scientists say help prevent cancer, heart disease, cataracts and even signs of aging.

Phytochemicals emerge at an amazing rate. Research scientists scramble to get them tagged and cataloged, then whipped into nutritional cocktails guaranteed to keep you healthy forever.

Q: It's a great idea, but how will we know when we know it all?

If you rely on supplements instead of food, how will you know what you're missing?

A: IDN's current brochure notes, "There are thousands of known phytonutrients, and more continue to be discovered." Two panels later, IDN proudly boasts its product contains five of them. (Where will you get the rest?) It goes on to say, "Phytonutrients are found in virtually every fruit and vegetable, and in some grains, yet some phytonutrients are more beneficial than others." This last is a vital point. Virtually all the research literature underscores the fact that most health benefits come from eating fruits and vegetables.

To be fair, IDN materials occasionally mention that food is good too. The brochure does say, "Phytonutrients, like anti-oxidants, can help complement nutrition in a daily diet."

What really angers me, though, is slick and misleading marketers. One told me that anti-oxidant researcher Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg of Tufts University "promotes our product." But the tape he sent me featured Dr. Jack Pfieffer, M.D., introducing Dr. Blumberg's anti-oxidant presentation by saying of Dr. Blumberg, does not endorse any product or any company."

A more recent sales agent tried to gain leverage by saying the American Dietetic Association supported phytochemicals and functional foods in its April journal. Here's ADA's actual statement:

"It is the position of The American Dietetic Association (ADA) that specific substances in foods (e.g., phytochemicals as naturally occurring components and functional food components) may have a beneficial role in health as part of a varied diet. The Association supports research regarding the health benefits and risks of these substances. Dietetics professionals will continue to work with the food industry and government to ensure that the public has accurate scientific information in this emerging field."

In the ADA rationale, Diet vs. Supplement section, they note, "Evolving research indicates that benefits will need to be achieved through consumption of a varied diet that includes a minimum of five servings daily of fruits and vegetables, consistent with the Food Guide Pyramid. Well-designed clinical trials, several of which have been completed, indicate that the beneficial effects associated with a diet high in fruits and vegetables MAY NOT BE DEMONSTRATED (italics mine) when individual nutrients, such as vitamins E and C and beta carotene, are consumed in supplement form."

The bottom line: Take supplements if you want to and can afford it. But with or without supplements, eating your fruits and vegetables is the only way to get all the nutrition nature intended.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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