Safety of Dietary Supplements

It’s fascinating how when there is one suspected adverse reaction to a dietary supplement it makes the headlines, and yet officials and the media are oblivious to the plethora of deaths due to properly regulated, properly prescribed and properly used drugs – not to mention avoidable deaths due to medical misadventure. This graph highlights the relative safety of dietary supplements compared to many other causes of death. Although they are USA figures, by and large they compare with NZ figures.

Figure 1: Statistical comparison of frequent causes of death (USA)
Figure 1a: Risk of supplements relative to other factors (New Zeland 2002)

Figure 2: Societal vs Individual Risk in Australia (2004)
Figure 3: Iatrogenic Injury in Australia Relative Risks of Selected Activities in Aus Govt Report
Figure 4: How safe is safe enough? - Number of encounters for each fatality
(Law, modified Amalberti, Leape)
Figure 5: Risk of Dying in Canada Compared to Being Killed on a Boeing 747 Flight
Figure 6: Relative Risks of Hospital Care, Pharmaceutical Drugs, Traffic Accidents, Foods, and Dietary Supplements in New Zealand (Ron Law 2004)


  1. Properly researched, regulated, prescribed and properly used drugs are the fourth most common cause of death – but they are never reported. (Source, Journal of the American Medical Association - Range 90,000 to 160,000 deaths per year.) That’s a Boeing 747 crashing every day! 46 people die every day from Aspirin alone in the USA.
  2. Avoidable medical misadventure is the sixth most common cause of death. (Source, CDC - range 40,000 to 90,000) In Australia 9,000 people die from avoidable medical misadventure every year. (Source, Australian Medical Journal). In Australia 50,000 people are maimed by medical misadventure every year. (AMJ)
  3. The figures used in this chart are at the lower end of the range (we wouldn’t want to be accused of exaggerating!)
  4. Food poisoning/adverse reactions causes between 5,000 to 9,000 deaths per year. (Source, CDC.)
  5. Dietary supplements have averaged less than 5 confirmed deaths per year over the past 25 years in the USA. Most of those relate to a single batch of genetically engineered tryptophan introduced in the late 1980’s. (Source, CDC/FDA) There have been no proven deaths to dietary supplements in NZ.
  6. A wide range of dietary supplements are consumed by over 50% of the population in both the USA and New Zealand (Source, NIH/MOH)
  7. You are less likely to die from taking a supplement than dying from bee stings, sports injuries, lightening, animal bites, horse riding, radon gas, etc, etc.
  8. Dietary supplements are incredibly safe.
  9. Dietary supplements have the potential to reduce deaths from cancers and heart disease by over 50%. (Optimists would go as high as 75%)
  10. Greater than 26,000 times more people die from preventable medical misadventure and properly regulated, properly prescribed and properly used drugs than from dietary supplements.
  11. You can have every confidence in assuring the safety of dietary supplements.
  12. There have been two deaths reported as being linked to dietary supplements in NZ – both were in people with malignant cancer who consumed the herbal mixture K4. Neither were proven to be due to K4. The coroner in one case said there was no evidence to link K4 to one of the deaths – he had terminal cancer of the liver, took K4 and died of liver failure. Officials tried to blame his death on K4. Despite the evidence to the contrary, K4 was banned.
  13. There was a recent media report linking Ginkgo Biloba to the death of a heart patient due to cerebral haemorrhage. The patient had been taking Ginko for some time. He was taking blood thinning drugs which are notorious for causing cerebral haemorrhage. Contrary to media reports, papers obtained by the NNFA under the official information act revealed that the MARC did not find Ginkgo to be the cause of death.

Think about this...

Vets have long known and recommended not to feed your nutrient deficient leftovers to your pets – they’ll get sick – so... all commercially prepared pet foods contain dietary supplements. Cattle, sheep, horses, goats, laboratory rabbits & rats etc need dietary supplements to remain healthy. We’ve long known that pastures and crops need dietary supplements (fertiliser) to grow well. Yet it is still denied by officials that humans need dietary supplements – despite the plethora of evidence and commonsense that says otherwise. Our regulators are tying to convince use that despite the fact that our pets need supplements, our farm animals need supplements, our crops need supplements – humans don’t.

Stunning Reports on Cancer
Harvard University recently released a report on the prevention of cancer of the colon. Top of the pops were exercise and longterm folic acid containing multivitamin supplementation. Harvard University has been undertaking a longitudinal study of nearly 100,000 nurses for about twenty years. Their research has shown that the impact of folic acid supplementation reduces cancer of the colon by a massive 75-80%. (See figure 2.)
At the same time John Hopkin’s Medical Center’s nutrition department recently stated, “Based on studies where people take a supplement, vitamin E seems to reduce risk of some cancers by 60 to 70 percent. Increased levels of vitamin E also appear to decrease the amount of fat (lipids) in the arteries, and to reduce the risk of heart disease by 80 to 90 percent.” WOW! They then go on to say that they don’t recommend supplements. Hello?

Figure 2 Reduction of risk of cancer of the colon

Larry Clark from Arizona University found, in a controlled multi centre study, that a daily selenium supplement cut cancer mortality in half, leading at the same time to a 46-63 percent reduction in the incidence of lung-, prostate-, and colorectal cancer. ( Given that New Zealand has one of the highest rates of all three cancers, and given that the cure rates for these three forms of cancer are relatively low, less than 10% for lung cancer, and about 50% for bowel cancer, it makes sense to recommend folic acid and selenium supplements to your customers. Ask them what they would prefer, lowering the risk of getting and dying from cancer by 50% or get it and then have less than a 50% chance of a cure? Not to mention the unpleasant treatment, nor the fact that 20% of cancer suffers get a second cancer due to their treatment without being told this fact.
Eat right and take a Multivitamin [with folic acid].
“The current evidence suggests that people who take such supplements and their children are healthier.” Dr G Oakley from the Center for Disease Control talking about ‘standard’ multivitamins with 400 ug of folic acid. NEJM, April 1998.
If every one in NZ took a multivitamin....

This article was prepared by Ron Law, former executive director of the New Zealand National Nutritional Foods Association and member of a New Zealand government working group advising on strategies for reducing medical error