Myth debunked by science: Vitamin C does not help with colds

As the weather in Poughkeepsie starts to get cooler and sniffles become the background noise of every classroom, students may find themselves drinking more orange juice and purchasing box upon box of vitamin supplements. It seems that an increase in vitamin C intake has become the go-to cure and preventative method for sicknesses like the common cold. However, the reality is that the benefits of such supplements have minimal scientific grounding; in fact, there is little to no evidence showing that vitamin C has the ability to prevent or cure the common cold.

While there are many different brands of vitamin C supplements, Emergen-C is definitely one of the most popular, as it is currently the number one bestseller on Amazon for vitamin C supplements (Amazon, “Best Sellers in Vitamin C Supplements,” 10.07.2018). Much like other brands, Emergen-C contains misleading information on its label.

The original formula contains 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C in each packet. However, the drug packaging recommends that users take up to twice that dose daily, amounting to a total of 2,000 milligrams each day. In contrast, the recommended daily amount of vitamin C is just 65 to 90 milligrams (Mayo Clinic, “Is it possible to take too much vitamin C?” 02.08.2018). In fact, your body only absorbs 70 to 90 percent even with a moderate intake. Therefore, when it consumes more than 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C, as in one “Emergen-C” package, absorption rate falls to 50 percent, and the body removes the excess through urine (National Institutes of Health, “Vitamin C,” 09.18.2018).

Not only is the amount of vitamin C in Emergen-C ineffective, but the brand can also no longer make claims about its ability to prevent and treat the common cold. In December 2013, Alacer Corp, the product’s manufacturer, faced a $6.45 million settlement for a class-action lawsuit concerning deceptive marketing of Emergen-C. The complaint alleged that the company misleadingly represented the benefits of their supplement, claiming that it could prevent colds or flus without reliable scientific evidence. In June 2014, a superior court judge gave the final approval to this settlement in favour of the complaint, and according to the settlement terms, class members could receive a refund of up to $36 with a proof of purchase (Truth In Advertising, “Emergen-C,” 09.16.2014). This example shows that even if vitamin C could help treat the common cold, the supplement dosage remains excessive, and the overall benefit would not exceed that of simply eating a piece of fruit.

Despite the fact that Emergen-C packs their supplements with unnecessary amounts of vitamin C, one might argue that what the body does absorb can help treat the common cold. However, this does not appear to be the case either. The most convincing evidence for the supplements’ ability to fight the common cold comes from a 2013 study, wherein researchers conducted 29 randomized trial comparisons involving 11,306 participants and calculated the odds of a participant developing a cold while taking vitamin C tablets regularly. The researchers found that for people who were extremely active, such as marathon runners or soldiers exercising in subarctic conditions, taking at least 200 milligrams of vitamin C each day halved the risk of developing a cold. However, for the rest of the general population, taking vitamin C supplements did not reduce the risk of developing a cold nor did it have an effect on the duration or severity of the colds within the trials, demonstrating that it does not help treat colds either (Cochrane Library, “Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold,” 01.31.2013).

The myth about vitamin C did not appear out nowhere. There is a reason why so many people believe that it has the ability to cure the common cold, and it has to do with the findings of one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century, Linus Pauling. Pauling first rose to fame in 1931 when he published a paper titled “The Nature of the Chemical Bond.” Previously, chemists were aware of only two types of chemical bonding: ionic and covalent. Pauling’s paper demonstrated that electron sharing was actually somewhere between a covalent and ionic bond. When the Journal of the American Chemical Society received the manuscript for review, the study report was so far ahead of its time that no one was qualified enough to read it. When asked for his thoughts on Pauling’s work, Albert Einstein himself simply said, “It was too complicated for me.” For this paper, Pauling received the Langmuir Prize as the most outstanding young chemist in America, earned the role of professor at Caltech, became the youngest person to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 (The Atlantic, “The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Supplements,” 07.19.2013).

However, Pauling’s contributions to science did not end there. His findings on sickle hemoglobin gave birth to the field of molecular biology, he discovered the configuration of the alpha helix (later used to explain DNA structure) and he demonstrated that humans diverged from gorillas 11 million years ago, much earlier than scientists had previously suspected. Not only did Pauling contribute to the scientific community, but he was also an activist, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 after serving as a strong opponent of the Vietnam War, contributing to the development of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, speaking out against the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and much more (The Atlantic). It only made sense that people would believe any and all results of Pauling’s following scientific endeavors given his shining reputation.

After biologist Irwin Stone introduced Pauling to the idea of high-dose vitamin C helping the body, Pauling began taking three grams of vitamin C every day in order to prevent the common cold (Jack D. Dunitz, “Linus Carl Pauling,” 1997). Then in 1970, Pauling published “Vitamin C and the Common Cold,” which claimed that taking large amounts of vitamin C could reduce the severity and duration of the common cold. The following year, he engaged in a clinical collaboration with Ewan Cameron, a cancer surgeon, on its use as cancer therapy for terminal patients (Medical Hypothesis, “Protocol for the use of vitamin C in the treatment of cancer,” 11.1991).

The two wrote many papers on the topic, as well as a book titled “Cancer and Vitamin C.” With that, Pauling made vitamin C popular with the general public due to the sheer strength of his credibility. Eventually, Pauling conducted two studies on 100 patients with terminal cancer and published results that claimed vitamin C increased the chances of survival of up to four times in patients who received the treatment compared to those who did not (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, “Supplemental ascorbate in the supportive treatment of cancer: Prolongation of survival times in terminal human cancer,” 10.1976).

However, a later evaluation of such claims demonstrated that Pauling’s experiment was incredibly faulty, because the subjects who received the vitamin C treatment were less sick than those in the control group at the start of the trial (Your Patient and Cancer, “How to evaluate a new treatment for cancer,” 1982). Clinical trials conducted by Mayo Clinic in the late 1970s and early 1980s further showed that vitamin C was no better than a placebo when it came to oncological treatment, and such studies ultimately ended any scientific interest in vitamin C as a treatment for cancer, although Pauling did criticize the Mayo Clinic studies for not following his suggested methodology (Harry Collins, Trevor Pinch “Dr. Golem”, 04.2008).

Despite a lack of general acceptance from the scientific community, Pauling continued to research and promote vitamin C as a cure for both the common cold and cancer, but was not met with a positive reception from the scientific community. Toward the end of his life, his claims were regarded as quackery by other scientists. He died of the very disease that he sought to treat: cancer (Jack D. Dunitz, “Linus Carl Pauling,” 1997).

Overall, while there may not be any harm in taking vitamin C supplements, there is no justifiable reason to use them. Such myths surrounding vitamin C teach us an important lesson in being wary of flaws in methodologies of research and the significance of not accepting everything we hear as fact.

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