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By Bob Condor

We are all consumers of nutrition research. Some of us skim the headlines, maybe wave off the latest plus/minus review of, say, the caffeine in our coffee or whether apples really do keep the doctor away (the answer is yes, and there is even a good argument that eating one to three apples daily an hour before a meal keeps the weight down too).

Others among us are sure to read the newspaper or magazine story, maybe clip it out for a loved one or post it on the fridge. Some slice of individuals dig even deeper, looking up the newest study on the net or, ahem, bookmarking favorite health sites and blogs.

What’s less clear is just how we consumers of nutrition research use the information reported. A new study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reports an important distinction in how Americans act on scientific findings about herba, vitamins and other dietary supplements. It turns out we are quicker to respond to nutrition research that suggests body harm and don’t waver much if a nutrition shows a supplement is ineffective, yes, but not harmful.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s “bioethics” division analyzed the U.S. sales of five major supplements from 2001 through 2006, then cross-referenced those money figures with positive and negative media reports about the supplements.

Here’s what the federal scientists discovered: For four of the five supplements­–St. John’s wort, Echinacea, saw palmetto and glucosamine­­–there was little or no changes in sales no matter if the news was good (the herb works, helps this disease, products contain what they claim) or bad (the supplement showed no benefit, there is no evidence it works for blank, lab tests show some herb products have less of the active ing

redient than promised.

Only in the case of vitamin E were sales adversely affected. In that case, there were widespread media reports and commentaries about a major study linking regular 400 IU doses of vitamin E with increased risk of death from heart attacks and coronary artery disease. There were other studies connecting higher doses of E with potential problems. It was evidently enough to persuade U.S. adults to take less of the vitamin.

Researchers continue to argue the potential merits or dangers of taking a vitamin E supplement beyond what you might be taking in a standard multivitamin. Some scientists, for instance, are keen on taking E and selenium for Alzheimer’s prevention while others, just as adamantly, have stopped.

The DHB bottom line: All nutrition research is a work in progress. The vitamin E-will-do-you-harm reports seemingly stepped too far (and a number of Alzheimer’s researchers questioned methodology) but the “Fear Factor” works in the supplements aisles as much as, yuck, on reality TV shows. We’re all left as consumers of nutrition research to make our own decisions with proper input from sources we trust. Those sources can certainly draw from the media, savvy friends and informed health practitioners but is ultimately served by your own intuition and decision-making.

“Bob Condor is the Daily Health Blogger for Barton Publishing . He is also the Living Well columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer . He covers natural health and quality of life issues and writes regularly for national magazines, including Life, Esquire, Parade, Self, and Outside. He is a former syndicated health columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of six books, including “The Good Mood Diet” and “Your Prostate Cancer Survivors' Guide.” He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two 11-year-old kids.