Resources for responsibly reporting on supplements during the pandemic

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One of the biggest challenges of covering the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has been the proliferation of inaccurate information. That includes misinformation, propaganda, disinformation, conspiracy theories and, most pernicious of all, fake cures and treatments.

Some of the misinformation about substances that supposedly can treat COVID-19 is downright harmful, such as bleach or colloidal silver. The problem is so bad that the U.S Food and Drug Administration began issuing warning letters to multiple companies in early March to stop selling products that they said were fraudulently claiming could be used against coronavirus infections.

Other supposed treatments for the disease lacking supportive evidence are vitamins, minerals, herbs and other supplements. For example, one claim going around suggests that high doses of vitamin C can treat serious COVID-19 infections. I won’t link to any of them, but in a quick search, I found more than a dozen websites from “wellness,” naturopathic and chiropractic “practices” that directly link to that vitamin C press release.

In reality, there is no evidence that vitamin C can treat COVID-19 in any way. Nor is there any evidence to support as treatments a host of other supplements, such as oregano, elderberry syrup and essential oils. And many of these products carry serious risks. But it’s not surprising that these claims have popped up, given how much mainstream health journalism so regularly reports on dubiously supported benefits of this or that supplement.

As Carolina Branson, Ph.D., wrote at several years ago, journalists cover far too much research relating to vitamins and minerals, often breathlessly reporting on very limited or dubious findings without including appropriate caveats and context. Some journalists have done excellent work discussing the risks of supplements, but that’s not the norm. And while the problem isn’t new, it’s taken on a new urgency during the global pandemic.

Two tip sheets from on reporting about supplements and vitamins have been added to the AHCJ Medical Studies tip sheets section to offer suggestions to journalists on what to consider when writing about supplements. One is Branson’s piece on scaling back coverage, and the other, by Kathryn Stone, includes commentary from long-time health skepticism advocate Tim Caulfield.

Check out the following resources from the AHCJ Health Journalism 2010 panel “Assessing claims of functional foods and nutritional supplements,” also part of a tip sheet in the AHCJ Medical Studies core topic page. (Note that both speakers have relevant disclosures.) Here are some other resources from that session:

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