Vitamin C Controversy Rages Anew

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Vitamin C Controversy Rages Anew

Try buying a box of high-potency Vitamin C these days and chances are you will have to visit several pharmacies before you can find what you want. Vitamin C fever is sweeping the country, making the vitamin a scarce commodity.

The rush began after Seoul National University Professor of Anatomy Lee Wang-jae extolled the virtues of Vitamin C on a television talk show earlier this month. "Taking large amounts of vitamin C boosts the body's immune system and is effective in the treatment of high blood pressure, stroke and heart diseases," Professor Lee said.

Now high-potency Vitamin C pills containing 1,000 milligrams of ascorbic acid are all the rage.

Park Shin-kyu, a pharmacist at Chongro Pharmacy in Chongro 5-ga pharmacy district, says: "I ran out of stock quite some time ago but we can't get new supplies." He has been turning away customers looking for Vitamin C supplements.

Some people believe Vitamin C delays aging. "I take Vitamin C because it is an antioxidant and is supposed to slow the aging process," says a Korean woman identified only as Mrs. Park, 58, who takes 1,000 milligrams a day. "I've been taking it for six months now and I definitely notice the difference in my skin."

Mrs. Park, from Bundang in Kyonggi Province, recently had a hysterectomy to remove an ovarian cancer. But she harbors no illusions about some claims being made about the wonders of vitamin C. "I think it will help me keep healthy but I don't think it will prevent cancer or anything," she says.

Studies show that people who eat food high in Vitamin C, a water-soluble vitamin with antioxidant properties, have lower rates of cancer and heart disease. But it is unclear whether Vitamin C supplements produce similar benefits.

Controversy about Vitamin C has been around for some time. Nobel laureate Linus Pauling set off a vitamin fad in the United States in the 1950s, when he said people should take megadoses to heal or prevent a variety of ailments.

Today, there is a general consensus that megadoses are unnecessary and can be harmful. U.S. government researchers this year warned that there was scant evidence to support claims that megadoses of antioxidants such as Vitamins C and E help prevent ailments like heart disease or cancer.

In fact, the U.S. Institute of Medicine scientists say antioxidants in large amounts can be harmful. Antioxidants, theoretically, are believed to help repair damage that free radicals and oxygen molecules cause to the body. According to the theory, the antioxidants replace electrons that free radicals remove from vital cell structures. Removal of the electrons damages healthy cells, leading to disease, the theory says.

The Institute of Medicine report released last April recommends that adult women take 75 milligrams of Vitamin C daily and men 90 milligrams. This is an increase over the 60 milligrams currently recommended for men and women. Smokers should take an additional 35 milligrams daily due to the increased risk of cell damage. Pregnant women are advised to take 80 to 85 milligrams. While breast feeding, women should take 110 to 115 milligrams. The same report says a daily intake of up to 2,000 milligrams is unlikely to cause harm.

While popping a pill is easy and convenient, researchers say people should focus on eating a variety of fruits and vegetables to obtain Vitamin C and other nutrients. For example, a medium-sized orange contains about 70 milligrams of Vitamin C, nearly the recommended daily amount.

Nutritionists point out that whole foods contain many benefits not found in a pill. This is because food is a complex package that provides many essential nutrients, not just the few found in a supplement. An orange, for example, provides not only vitamin C but also carotene, calcium and simple sugars for energy. A Vitamin C pill lacks these other nutrients.

The best sources of Vitamin C are citrus juices and fruits. Vitamin C is also found in green vegetables such as peppers, broccoli, cabbages, tomatoes and potatoes. It is estimated that people who eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, as health experts recommend, will have a vitamin C intake of more than 200 milligrams.

Taking Vitamin C in doses higher than recommended does not have any obvious benefits, according to the Institute of Medicine report. People with gout, sickle-cell anemia, hemochromatosis, a condition in which the body stores too much iron or those with a tendency toward forming oxalate kidney stones should consult their doctor before taking Vitamin C supplements. If you are pregnant or breast feeding, you should not take more than the recommended amount.

Taking more than 2,000 milligrams of Vitamin C daily may cause a flushed face, headache, increased urination, lower abdominal cramps, mild diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

However, go ahead and gulp down those pills if you feel your normal diet does not meet the daily vitamin C requirements. While the health benefits of megadoses remain hotly debated, most people should benefit from taking one multivitamin pill each day. A multivitamin normally contains 500 milligrams of Vitamin C.

"People may not be getting what they need from regular food because many of the vitamins are lost in cooking and storage," explains the head of the Korea Vitamin Information Center, Yoon Yeon-jung. "If there is a family history of chronic diseases, it may make sense to take Vitamin C supplements as a preventive measure."


by Kim Hoo-ran

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