Donald Barrett’s “Free Vitamin D” Is Overhyped and Overpriced

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
November 13, 2010

Donald W. Barrett, who has produced misleading infomercials for many years, is now inviting people to join his Vitamin D Health Initiative, which is said to be “dedicated to exposing people to the truth about Vitamin D.” Those who join are promised “free vitamin D for life” if they register for the Initiative and pay for handling and shipping. Barrett’s infomercial for the Vitamin D Health Intitiative recently aired on the Discovery Channel and is posted to the Initiative’s Web site. The 30-minute infomercial is set up as an “interview” in which Barrett is questioned Blaine Athorne.

Questionable Claims

At the beginning of the program, Barrett provides an emotion-filled story about the impact of cancer in his family, which, he says, has made him especially concerned about the problem of cancer. Then he claims to have uncovered information about vitamin D that has been “suppressed” by drug companies and the FDA. As evidence of this alleged suppression, he states that in 2006, CNN reported that a massive study had found that vitamin D can reduce the risk of cancer by up to 50%—but the program was “gone the next day.” He also says:

  • The scientific community is reporting that you need at least 2000 international units every single day.”
  • The Canadian Cancer Society has recommended that everyone take a supplement.
  • Every single American—every man, woman, and child—should be on vitamin D.”
  • “Vitamin D is as safe as water” and has no side effects.
What the Evidence Actually Shows

Curious about all this, I googled “CNN + vitamin D + cancer risk” and immediately found a transcript of the program on the CNN Web site [1]. The transcript described a review of 63 studies that dealt with the relationship between blood levels of vitamin D and cancer risk. So Barrett’s claim that the report disappeared is obviously false. The review, which was also easy for me to locate, was published in the American Journal of Public Health. It said that “the majority of studies found a protective relationship between sufficient vitamin D and lower risk of cancer” and that efforts to improve vitamin D status by supplementation could with 1000 international units (IU) per day would reduce cancer incidence and death rate at low cost with few or no adverse effects [2].

Vitamin D certainly deserves and has gotten lots of attention, with calls for additional research. But the situation is far from settled. In 2007, U.S. government researchers reported on a study of 16,818 people who were followed for from 6 to 12 years to see whether their initial blood vitamin D (1,25 dihydroxyvitamin D) levels were related to subsequent development of a cancer. The study found no relationship [3]. Moreover, there is no scientific consensus that everyone should supplement or that the dosage should be 2000 IU. The prevailing view appears to be that most people should get at least 800 to 1,000 IU per day, but whether supplements are advisable and how much should be taken depends on what people eat and whether they have significant exposure to sunlight (which can cause vitamin D to be synthesized in the skin).

The Canadian Cancer Society recommendation was triggered by a four-year clinical trial of about 1,000 postmenopausal women who received either 1100 IU of vitamin D, vitamin D plus a calcium supplement, or a placebo. The study found that the vitamin D groups developed fewer cancers [4]. In a news release, the Society advised Canadian adults “at high risk of having lower vitamin D levels” to consider taking a 1000 IU supplement year-round and other adults to consider supplementing during the fall and winter. It made no recommendations for children [5].

Barrett’s claim that vitamin D is “safe as water” is false. Serious harm is uncommon, but has been reported at very high intake levels. The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL)—which the Food and Nutrition Board considers to be the maximum daily intake unlikely to cause adverse health effects—is 2000 IU [6]. Since virtually everyone will get more through food and/or sunlight, a 2000 IU supplement will exceed the UL value. It is not known whether this level poses a hazard, but because there is no proven benefit, there is no current reason to exceed a total intake of 1000 IU per day.

Cost Comparison

During the infomercial, Barrett claims that his “free vitamin D” is “much cheaper than if they get the product at the store.” That simply is untrue. His adult product, which contains 2000 international units (IU) of vitamin D per pill, is packaged with 30 per bottle. The cost $6.95 per month if shipped monthly or $6.95 plus $3.50 for additional month’s supply ordered at the same time. This would amount to $83.40 if ordered monthly or $45.45 for a year’s supply ordered at once. Many Internet outlets and retail stores offer the same dosage for less. The cheapest is probably Puritan’s Pride, which currently offers 500 2000 IU softgels for $10.58 plus $4.95 shipping, which translates to $.93 per month or about $11 per year. Barrett’s children’s formula—which contains 1000 IU per pill—is also much cheaper from Puritan’s Pride.

Background History

The FTC has been trying to curb Barrett’s activities for many years. In 2004, the FTC filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, charging him, several associates, and their affiliated companies with falsely claiming that “Supreme Greens with MSM” and “Coral Calcium Daily” can prevent and cure cancer and other diseases. The infomercial for Supreme Greens promoted it as a means to treat, cure, and prevent cancer and other diseases, and to cause significant weight loss. The infomercial for Coral Calcium Daily touted it as a means to treat and cure cancer and other diseases and as a superior form of calcium based on its purported bioavailability. The FTC further alleged that Barrett and two of his companies (Direct Marketing Concepts, and ITV Direct) charged consumers’ credit cards for automatic product shipments without authorization [7]. Some defendants settled the charges by signing consent agreements, but Barrett did not. In 2008, the District Court concluded that the infomercials were misleading, and in 2009, ordered Barrett, Robert Maihos, Direct Marketing Concepts, Inc., ITV Direct, Inc.—to pay $48.2 million. The court also barred them from making unsubstantiated claims about any health product or billing consumers or making unauthorized charges. In October 2010, a federal appeals court upheld this decision [8].

The Bottom Line

Many people who are not getting enough vitamin D from food and sunlight exposure may benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement. However, the dosage should be based on proven value and should depend upon how much is needed. The Vitamin D Health Initiative’s infomercial overstates the potential benefits, exaggerates the need, promotes a high dosage that is not supported by current evidence, downplays the possibility of adverse effects, and offers a “free lifetime supply” that costs considerably more than similar products available elsewhere.

  1. Report: Vitamin D can cut cancer risk, CNN, Dec 28, 2005.
  2. Garland CF. The role of vitamin D in cancer prevention. American Journal of Public Health 96:252-261, 2006.
  3. Lappe JM and others. Vitamin D and calcium supplementation reduces cancer risk: Results of a randomized trial. America Journal of Clinical Nutrition 85:1586-1591, 2007.
  4. Freedman DM and others. Prospective study of serum vitamin D and cancer mortality in the United States. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 99:1594-1602, 2007.
  5. Canadian Cancer Society announces vitamin D recommendation. News release, June 8, 2007.
  6. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary supplement fact sheet: Vitamin D. Updated Nov 13, 2009.
  7. Marketers of “Supreme Greens” and “Coral Calcium Daily” come under fire from the FTC. FTC news release, June 3, 2004.
  8. Appellate court upholds order requiring promoters of Supreme Greens and Coral Calcium dietary supplements to pay $48.2 million for deceptive ads. FTC news release, Oct 29, 2010.

This article was posted on November 13, 2010.