Were Vitamin E Supplements Worth the Hype? An Analysis

Why Vitamin E Supplements Took Off in the 1990s

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

In the early 1990s, vitamin E was one of the most popular dietary supplements on the market. Why is this? Professor Anding explains how this trend took off and analyzes the real science behind vitamin E.

Vitamin E capsules
Getting our vitamins from eating fruits and vegetables is typically the best way to get adequate vitamin intake rather than relying on vitamin supplements. Photo By RomarioIen / Shutterstock

Why Supplements Took Off

The main reason for the popularity of vitamin E supplements was sweeping claims about the benefits of the vitamin. One of these claims is true—vitamin E is an antioxidant. From this information, studies inferred that vitamin E could reduce the incidence of heart disease and cancer.

At that time, consumers were driven to purchase vitamin E as a result of these claims. According to Professor Anding, though, consumers were typically buying supplements, which is rarely as effective as food sources of vitamin E.

“My example with vitamin E actually comes from my husband, who obviously has lived with me for a long time, and who followed, through his own supplementation regime, the current evidence on vitamins and minerals,” Professor Anding said. “When the evidence on vitamin E became weaker and weaker, I suggested he stop taking his vitamin E. He wouldn’t do it. So, I would remove it from the counter, and it would come back; [I would] remove it from the counter, and it would come back.”

Professor Anding teased her husband that it was like he was married to his vitamin E because he couldn’t give it up. She finally convinced him that vitamin E in a supplement form isn’t the most effective measure you can take for optimal health. 

Shedding Doubt on Vitamin E Benefits

“Vitamin E may actually have some benefit in the reduction of chronic disease, but now almost every major controlled trial out there has suggested vitamin E is not the hero that we once thought it was,” Professor Anding said.

Major studies have failed to show an association between vitamin E intake and the prevention of heart disease. In fact, high-risk individuals taking vitamin E had increased risk of heart failure. Other research studies at the time indicated that it may not be effective for treating heart disease, but it might protect the immune system. 

Supplemental vitamin E is thought to reverse some of the age-related decline in immune function, but not for all of us. In this particular study, it was nursing home residents who benefited from vitamin E.

Preliminary research suggests vitamin E may aid in the preservation of cognitive function, thus preventing Alzheimer’s disease. At this point, results from studies are mixed.

Mixed Results

Similarly, research results regarding vitamin E and cancer are mixed. A recent study by the American Cancer Society indicated that those who take vitamin E for approximately 10 years can reduce the risk of bladder cancer. Keep in mind, though, that this is chronic consumption of vitamin E. 

“How many of you can honestly say if you take a vitamin or a mineral that you’re doing it every single day, and you’ve done it every single day for 10 years?” Professor Anding said. “There might be some of you, but that’s generally not the pattern of supplementation that we see.”

Observational studies suggested that a combination of vitamin E and selenium, which both act as antioxidants, might prevent prostate cancer. The SELECT Study, which stands for Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial, demonstrated that this combination is not effective as a standard prevention strategy, which involves establishing healthy habits. 

Overall, the conclusion you can draw from these studies—however mixed—is that you should get your vitamin E from food and stay away from supplements if you fall into that vulnerable category of already having vascular disease and diabetes.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.

About Kate Findley 373 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.