Beta Carotene

Why would The National Cancer Institute stop the study of the antioxidant beta-carotene almost two years before the end of the scheduled experiment?

The answer was revealed late January 1996; beta carotene was found to be INCREASING rather than decreasing certain types of Cancer. So sure of it’s negative effects, scientists halted the study rather than to continue the risk to experimental subjects.

The huge, far reaching study nicknamed CARET (funded with our tax dollars) was designed to find out if beta-carotene would lower the incidence of cancer and the death rates among smokers. Much to the government’s dismay, the early results showed just the opposite. Daily beta carotene (only 30 milligrams) and Vitamin A supplements appeared to increase the likelihood of cancer in smokers by 28% and increase the likelihood of death by 17%. Sobering statistics for all you carrot farmers who enjoy your smokes on the back porch.

Quoting Dr. Richard Klausner, the Director of the National Cancer Institute, “Beta carotene is no magic bullet.” Quite an understatement, wouldn’t you say, Doc? And how many deaths (or should we say “statistical blips, doc?) led you to that brilliant conclusion?

For those of you who care, beta carotene is just one of hundreds of naturally occurring compounds called carotenoids. Beta carotene is the nutrient that helps your body make Vitamin A. Generally it is found in abundance in dark green and orange fruits and vegetables, especially carrots and spinach. It is a popular antioxidant.

Although we applaud the government pulling the plug on this study before the body count got even higher, we have to question why this study was ever funded in the first place. A short while ago a similar study was conducted by Finnish scientists. In fact, they studied over 30,000 male smokers. The results of this study demonstrated that beta carotene increased cancers in smokers by 18% and deaths by 8%. The scientists, of course, were armed with these findings. Sure, it is important to replicate all research findings in independent settings, especially when the finding runs so counter to closely held traditional beliefs. But the current government study fully included 18,314 men and women. Certainly, any statistician will tell you that this number amounts to massive overkill (no pun intended) when there is a reasonable belief that the experimental manipulation may be dangerous. Or in this case deadly.

Bravo, guys. You’re forgetting you are using a human sample. We’re not sacrificial mice. We’d love to see the informed consent document in this one.

In summary, let’s put this all in perspective. The government acted quickly and positively when the stopped the study. Sure, an argument could be made that the study didn’t need to be conducted in the first place, but that’s water under the scientific bridge; let’s learn from the mistake. The guy that has to win the arrogant scientist of the year award in connection with beta carotene research is Dr. Charles H. Hennekens at Harvard Medical School (where else). We quote, “In the U.S. today, many people would rather pop a pill than change their lifestyle. Beta carotene neither substitutes for a good diet nor compensates for a bad one.” It sounds like the good Doctor is actually blaming people. Wow. Good thing it isn’t politically correct for medical researchers to say things like ahhh, its only smokers, they’d died early anyway.

The bottom line for everyone is that in all likelihood a vast majority of the anti-oxidants able to be bought are very good for your health. There is an abundance of excellent research demonstrating their positive properties for a number of groups. In light of these findings, however, smokers may want to steer clear of high amounts of beta carotene or Vitamin A.