The real story behind vitamin safety

I remember when people used to trust Consumer Reports magazine for unbiased information and reviews. Today, it's looking more and more like a sensationalist tabloid rag that'll do anything for attention.

Just take a look at the recent issue that attacked vitamins and other natural supplements.

The magazine's editors know millions of people take vitamins every day. And they also know the best way to get attention (and subscription money) is to use fear -- to make those millions of people think they're taking something dangerous, even if they're not.

So they put together an article that's the most outrageous collection of myths, exaggerations, and half-truths I've ever seen.

Here's one: Consumer Reports says vitamins are dangerous because you might choke while swallowing them. Sure, that's technically true -- but it's equally true of anything else you put in your mouth.

Yet I don't see the magazine running lengthy warnings about the dangers of choking on popcorn and Brussels sprouts. And of course, medications are every bit as big as -- or bigger than -- vitamins, so you can choke on them just as easily.

But somehow, vitamins get singled out as a choking hazard.

The magazine also warns that some supplements are tainted with drugs. This is sometimes true, but only of supplements from shady sources -- like convenience store sex pills later found tainted with Viagra, or diet supplements bought online off places like eBay that have actual prescription diet drugs hidden inside.

This is illegal, of course, and the companies that make them should be shut down (tricky, since most of them are overseas).

But a few minutes of basic research can help you find trustworthy companies that stick to rigid standards -- and that will bring your risk of taking a tainted supplement down to nearly zero.

That's a better guarantee than you'll get when you buy meds, as popular drugs from major manufacturers are routinely found tainted and contaminated -- and recalled as a result. (Think of all the Tylenol and Motrin recalls over the past year or so.)

So the article is nothing more than just scare tactics. But just in case those tactics don't work, the magazine throws in the old "even if they're safe, you don't need them anyway" line the mainstream loves to use.

The magazine says it's better to get your nutrition from diet, and no one would argue with that. But that's not always realistic -- and vitamins can help pick up the slack when diet falls short. And with millions of Americans taking multiple pharmaceuticals that can cause nutritional deficiencies, supplements are even more necessary.

In addition, many studies find real benefits and even cures from supplements, but only at much higher levels than what you'll find on a dinner plate. Omega-3 fatty acids are a good example of this. Same goes for vitamin C and B vitamins.

"High" levels of these and other nutrients are perfectly safe. They're so safe that there have been less than a dozen deaths attributed to vitamin overdose over nearly half a century -- quite a record, considering that at least half of Americans take vitamins.

Meanwhile, drug overdoses were the leading cause of accidental death in 2009, killing 37,000 Americans in that one year alone. That's more than the number of people killed in traffic accidents.

You tell me which risk you'd rather face -- but personally, I'd stick with the vitamins.