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SKEPTICAL SCIENCE SUNDAYS: Vitamin C

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When I first became interested in skepticism, I went through a series of shocking discoveries. My new focus on science led to the realization that many of the ideas I had believed in were actually not based in truth. Everything from astrology to natural medicine had seemed perfectly plausible to me once upon a time, but once I started to do the actual research, one thing after another fell to the mighty hand of science.

After several months of reading science news and listening to The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (a shameless plug for my favorite podcast), it seemed like that period of my life was  over. I had a pretty good idea of what was science and what was nonsense, and it looked like my earth-shattering revelations were a thing of the past. However, I soon discovered that I was wrong. There was still plenty of room for surprises.

A New Myth to Bust

A few weeks ago, the aforementioned skeptical podcast addressed a news item regarding the “Vitamin C myth.” I was intrigued – surely they couldn’t be talking about the use of Vitamin C to fight off colds? I’ve been drinking orange juice every flu season since well before I moved to Florida. I was sure that couldn’t be the myth they were busting. And yet, I was wrong.

It turns out that the idea that Vitamin C prevents colds is, indeed, a myth. It began in the 1970s with Dr. Linus Pauling, a scientist whose obsession with Vitamin C led to the recommendation that everyone consume at least 3,000 milligrams daily in order to fight off colds. The problem was, this claim wasn’t based on actual science – and later attempts to support it have been underwhelming.

The Results Are In

In reality, Vitamin C does not have any noticeable effects on the frequency or severity of colds in the general population. It may have a small effect on the duration of colds, but the effect is negligible, ultimately only decreasing the length of a cold by a few hours. Additionally, Pauling’s recommendation of 3,000 mg is insane. The recommended daily value of Vitamin C is closer to 100 mg, which is even less than what you get from a single glass of orange juice.

Pauling’s claims later became even more ludicrous, suggesting that megadoses of Vitamin C could cure the effects of snake bites or even HIV. Clearly, those ideas are ridiculous. Even Pauling’s initial claims about Vitamin C as a cure for colds seem a little too good to be true. So why did people believe him, and why has the Vitamin C myth continued as long as it has?

Bigger Fish to Fry

Essentially, the scientific community has largely ignored this myth because it’s not a particularly dangerous one. Even in relatively high doses, Vitamin C is quite safe, and most consumers don’t go nearly as far as the Pauling-recommended 3,000 mg. As long as you’re not taking 4 supplement pills a day, you’re probably not hurting yourself, even if you’re not helping yourself either. Additionally, drinking orange juice during a cold may have other benefits as well – fluids are always a good thing, and the extra sugar can give you energy if you’re too sick to eat solid food. If you’re like me and prefer to get your vitamins the old-fashioned way, you might be doing your sick self a favor, even if it wasn’t quite how you intended. The truth is, in a world of anti-vaxxers and patients dying in naturopathic “treatments”, busting the Vitamin C myth just isn’t a priority for the skeptical science community.

So What’s the Point?

Sure, this myth might not be a dangerous one. But the fact that it took me nearly a year after starting my skeptical adventure to even figure out that it’s a myth just goes to show how prevalent pseudoscience can be in our popular knowledge base. Folk wisdom might not be as harmful as antivaccine rhetoric or Raw Water, but it’s still not science, and it’s still important for us to be on our toes and fact-check. And it’s especially important to be smart about where you’re putting your money. Supplement companies make millions of dollars a year from Americans who don’t understand science and think they need more vitamins than their food can give them, which just isn’t true. You don’t need to line their pockets just to end your cold a few hours early.

So if you’re feeling sick, go ahead and drink some orange juice! It is our state beverage, after all. But you can put the supplement bottle back on the shelf. Your wallet will thank you.

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SKEPTICAL SCIENCE SUNDAYS: Vitamin C