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This Supplement Can Raise Your Cancer Risk, Experts Say

A health task force recommends that you avoid taking this supplement—it won't help, and may harm.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) won't recommend that taking vitamins and supplements can prevent heart disease and cancer, and will warn that taking one supplement can actually raise cancer and heart disease risk, according to a draft statement posted on its website. 

The USPSTF has given most supplements an "I" grade—for insufficient evidence—in terms of preventing cancer and cardiovascular disease. But, citing strong scientific data, the group will recommend against taking beta-carotene supplements.

"The evidence shows there is no benefit to taking vitamin E and that beta-carotene can be harmful because it increases the risk of lung cancer in people already at risk, such as those who smoke, and also increases the risk of dying from heart disease or stroke," said John Wong, MD, of Tufts Medical Center, in a statement.

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Scientists call for more study

The group's new review of 78 studies showed that no supplement had a significant effect on cardiovascular health. Data about vitamin D supplementation and cancer mortality was inconsistent.

The researchers said that more study is warranted. "More evidence is needed to understand whether there is heterogeneity across specific populations, or by baseline nutrient level, in the effects of vitamin, mineral, and multivitamin supplementation on cardiovascular disease and cancer outcomes, especially in persons with no known deficiencies and low prevalence of supplement use and in diverse populations," the study authors wrote.

Based on the latest evidence, the USPSTF does not recommend routine vitamin D deficiency screening for asymptomatic adults. But the group does recommend that women who are planning to or capable of becoming pregnant take folic acid supplements. (Folic acid insufficiency during pregnancy can cause severe birth defects in a fetus's spinal cord and brain, including spina bifida.) 

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Other recent studies reach similar conclusion

The USPSTF's statement follows a 2019 meta-analysis in which researchers from Johns Hopkins evaluated studies involving 450,000 people, determining that multivitamins don't lower your risk of heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline, death after a heart attack or stroke, or early death. Their advice: Don't waste your money on multivitamins; get the vitamins and minerals you need from food.

"Pills are not a shortcut to better health and the prevention of chronic diseases," said Larry Appel, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research, at the time. "Other nutrition recommendations have much stronger evidence of benefits—eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and reducing the amount of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugar you eat."

However, those researchers also recommended that women of childbearing age take a folic acid supplement. So be careful—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss this special report: Here's How You Could Catch COVID Even After You're Vaccinated.