Raising consumer confidenceA recent finding by the local food and drug authority that a largely circulated herbal health product known as Cynanchum wilfordii, or baeksuho, contained an illegal substance has caused huge social and industrial ripples.
A Korean biotech brand popular for herbal medicine and products made out of Cynanchum wilfordii instead purportedly used a cheaper, toxic ingredient called Cynanchum auriculatum Royal that is banned by local health authorities. But the health authority has not been clear on how harmful it is to the human body. Rumors have been running wild as to why the illegal substance was used and how consumers would be compensated.
The local health product market has been ever-expanding and was valued at 1.79 trillion won ($1.63 billion) by 2013. Supervision over toxic substances is essential, but it is not easy to draw up administrative constraints and regulations based on supposed scientific evidence and tests on the innumerable natural and chemical ingredients that go into health products. Of over 20,000 types of health products in the U.S. market, only 46 have passed safety reviews by the Food and Drug Administration.
All health products are antioxidant agents to reduce oxidative damage to cells. Craze over dietary supplements to get rid of free oxygen radicals that had been pegged as the cause of aging and illness never ceases to end. But free radicals are not entirely harmful. The free radical theory on aging, or the role of free radicals in the aging process, is not absolute.
As long as our metabolism is at work, cells accumulate free radicals. Smoking, bad dieting and pollution accelerates their accumulation. Our body generates a complex system of antioxidant metabolites and enzymes that work together to prevent oxidative damage. We also consume vegetables and fruit for antioxidant vitamin supplementation.
Thirty years ago, I wrote “The Modern People and Vitamins,” affected by Linus Pauling’s Noble-prize-winning studies and publications “Vitamin C and the Common Cold” and “Vitamin C and Cancer” in the 1970s. Pauling, who remains the only person ever to win two unshared Noble prizes - for chemistry in 1954 and peace in 1962 - is responsible for the widespread belief that high doses of vitamin C are effective against cold and other illnesses and contribute to the development of chemical theories.
Vitamins played a huge role in anti-cancer studies. Research on Vitamin A, which aids in the reproduction of cells, led to the birth of hair loss remedies. Studies in the late 1980s on the harm of ultraviolet rays in accelerating aging and raising the risk of skin cancers made cosmetics and textile manufacturers rush to include SPF in their products. Sunshine is now appreciated again for its vitamin D requirement for healthy bones and brain activity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the vitamin D deficiency rate is 47 percent among Korean men and 65 percent for Korean women.
But studies on vitamin D are mixed. While others claim being “D-ficient” can increase the risk of a host of chronic diseases, the Women’s Health Initiative led by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concluded that vitamin D and calcium have no effect on fracture risk in non-institutionalized postmenopausal women, and evidence is insufficient to support higher doses of the supplements in this segment for fracture prevention. Recommendations apply only to community-dwelling senior citizens who risk falls, it said. The U.S. National Institutes of Health’s conclusion from various metabolomics studies is that some dietary supplements can be helpful for pregnant women and some health conditions. But evidence on their effect in reducing cancer cells are insufficient and excess can lead to side effects and even increase cancer-causing cells. Their tests vary depending on the type, sample amount, period and experimental subjects. They can be both helpful and harmful.
Newsweek magazine wrote an article in 2011 entitled “Antioxidants Fall from Grace,” suggesting that taking antioxidant supplements was not beneficial to health. In fact, they can actually be dangerous. Anti-oxidization - or the neutralization of reactive radicals that can attack cell components - works in complex ways. They also work differently against different agents. Excessive levels of antioxidants may even be toxic.
Reversals and challenges to long-held beliefs and myths about health science should be nothing surprising. In its provocative cover story in 2014 headlined, “Eat Butter,” Time magazine said the 40-year demonization of saturated fat as the cause of obesity, diabetes and heart disease was wrong, defying its own 1961 cover story on Ancle Keyes, who claimed that saturated fats in the diet clogged arteries and caused heart disease. It admitted defeat in the war on fat and called dietary philosophy to reduce high cholesterol and fat a junk science.
More confounding is the theory on the placebo effect. After decades of research and clinical studies, scientists discovered that a placebo, a substance with no known medical remedy and an otherwise fake treatment to deceive patients, can generate an actual improvement in medical condition. How the placebo effect can actually work is not entirely explained.
Scientific theories, like all things, evolve with time. Hippocrates advised that balance through a good diet and adequate exercise, hygiene, sunshine, sentiment and environment was best for the body.
At the end of the day, it is all up to the individuals or consumers. The government, in the meantime, should mend any loopholes in the regulatory system to prevent such confusion, such as the recent case over Cynanchum wilfordii, to reinforce the local bio-industry and raise consumer confidence in health and dietary supplements.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, May 16, Page 31
*The author is a former environment minister and a visiting professor at the KAIST Science and Technology Policy Graduate School.
by Kim Myung-ja