6.30.2009 1:25 PM

Selenium Pills May Increase, Not Decrease, Prostate Cancer Risk

Bayer's One A Day pill with selenium faces lawsuit over cancer-fighting claim.
Another reason to avoid vitamin pills unless directed by a doctor, and instead eat a real food diet.

folic acid vitamins
Photo: Nina Shannon / Istock

By Dan Shapley

Selenium pills have recently been linked to diabetes and cardiovascular disease, prompting one scientist to state that "selenium supplements should not be used in the U.S. until there is a better understanding of their potential risks and benefits."

Another risk has emerged -- and it seems to negate one of the biggest supposed benefits. Men with higher levels of selenium in their blood had higher risk of more-aggressive prostate cancer, according to a new study. About 75% of men with prostate cancer were adversely affected (they were twice as likely to have an "adverse outcome" from their cancers as those with low levels of selenium in their blood) because of a common genetic predisposition. The other 25%, with a different genetic makeup, had a 40% lower risk if they had higher selenium levels.

The take-away, according to the study's senior author: "If you already have prostate cancer, it may be a bad thing to take selenium," said Dr. Philip Kantoff, MD, director of Dana-Farber's Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology.

Selenium has been touted as a prostate-cancer fighter, but another recent study showed that neither Vitamin E nor selenium supplements prevented prostate cancer.

Neither study has so far stopped the marketing of these vitamins as cancer-fighters, though. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has threatened to sue Bayer Healthcare, and urged the Food and Drug Administration to seize its "One A Day Men's" pills, and filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission -- all because of Bayer's claims about selenium's benefits:

"The claim that the selenium in One A Day Men's Health Formula reduces the risk of prostate cancer gives the product the status of an unapproved drug, and is therefore illegal," CSPI claims. "Even the more general claim Bayer uses to promote that and another men's supplement that selenium 'supports prostate health' is deceptive and illegal since it is unsubstantiated by scientific evidence and implies that the product can reduce the risk of prostate cancer. No published studies have investigated whether selenium helps or hurts when it comes to the only other common prostate problem, benign prostatic hyperplasia, or enlarged prostate. CSPI says the FDA should seize existing stockpiles of the deceptively labeled products until the company corrects the labels."

Bayer stands behind all health claims, according to a spokesperson quoted in the media.

According to CSPI, the FDA has approved only a rather tepid statement about prostate health that food and drug makers can use to market products with selenium: "Two weak studies suggest that selenium intake may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. However, four stronger studies and three weak studies showed no reduction in risk. Based on these studies, FDA concludes that it is highly unlikely that selenium supplements reduce the risk of prostate cancer." (Because of the form of selenium in the One A Day tablets, CSPI claims Bayer would not even be able to use this language.)

CSPI is also pressuring Major League Baseball and the Prostate Cancer Foundation to stop associating their names with the Bayer One A Day tablets in advertising campaigns: "Bayer and MLB jointly contribute $10 to the foundation for every strikeout thrown by a major league pitcher. The amount of money that the charity stands to gain in a typical season, then, would be in the $350,000 ballpark, in all likelihood a small fraction of the profits that Bayer rakes in from the deceptive labeling and advertising."

Taken together, the new information about selenium should remind all of us of two things: One, there's no substitute for a healthy balanced diet, and getting nutrition from real foods is generally better than looking for a quick-fix pill. Two, beware marketing claims, and remember that foods that aren't packaged aren't marketed -- but they are often (think fruits and vegetables) the most healthy options ... far more healthy than typical processed foods that scream their health claims.


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