Most of my liberal friends scorn “Big Pharma” for making profits. (More accurately, they scorn drug companies because they don’t give them drugs for cheap — the sense of entitlement runs deep in Boomers.)

These same people think nothing of shelling out big bucks for vitamins and supplements that have no proven value. Unlike drug companies, which must prove their products are both safe and effective, supplement makers face no such strictures.

When there was a move to tighten this loophole, these otherwise Big Government types turned into raging libertarians, demanding that the government keep its hands off their vitamins.

Now Emily Anthes writes in Slate about the effectiveness of the multivitamin:

Deciding what to eat for dinner can be mind-bending. How do we keep track of the ever-evolving recommendations for what to put on, and leave off, the plate? Red meat might cause cancer! But don’t replace it with tofu—soy concoctions might be carcinogenic, too! Don’t even try to figure out where carbs stand this week. And the verdict on coffee, chocolate, and alcohol changes faster than you can order a mocha martini.

Vitamins—with their promise to bridge the gap between the nutrients our bodies need and those they get—have always seemed reassuringly simple: Just pop a multivitamin and let your body soak in those extra nutrients. But not any longer. During the past few years, study after study has raised doubts about what, if any, good vitamins actually do a body. They could even pose some real medical risks.

Half of all American adults take some sort of nutritional supplement. But research on a wide variety of patient populations and medical conditions has failed to find much evidence that multivitamins, the most commonly used of the lot, prevent major chronic diseases in healthy people. The most recent knock came this spring, when a study of more than 160,000 post-menopausal women, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that the all-in-one pills did not prevent cancer, heart attacks, or strokes and did not reduce overall mortality.

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Individual vitamins and minerals haven’t fared much better under scientific scrutiny, with research debunking some of the reputed benefits of vitamin B6, calcium, niacin, and others. In 2006, the National Institutes of Health convened an independent panel of experts to evaluate the evidence that vitamins could prevent chronic disease. The scientists ultimately issued a report stating that studies “do not provide strong evidence for beneficial health-related effects of supplements taken singly, in pairs, or in combinations.”

The news on antioxidants, the darlings of the vitamin menagerie, is even more troubling. These compounds, which include vitamins A, C, and E, selenium, beta carotene, and folate, fight free radicals, unstable compounds thought to damage cells and contribute to aging. But not only do antioxidant supplements fail to protect against heart disease, stroke, and cancer; they actually increase the risk of death, according to a 2007 analysis of research on more than 232,000 people, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, as well as other studies.