CBS News I-Team: DrVita gets worked up over vitamins and minerals

CBS News I-Team: DrVita gets worked up over vitamins and minerals

By George Knapp, Chief Investigative Reporter
By Matt Adams, Chief Photojournalist

LAS VEGAS -- More than half of Americans say they regularly consume vitamins or other supplements, creating a business that generates tens of billions of dollars annually along with plenty of confusion over the value of those products.

One of the biggest names in the vitamin business has invested millions of dollars into a state-of-the-art supplement center in Las Vegas. The I-Team took a tour and got an earful from the head of the “DrVita” operation.

Here's an example why. A comprehensive study released Thursday morning by an Australian university shows vitamin B-3 can have significant effects in fighting skin cancer. In all probability another study a month from now will tell us the exact opposite.

It is confusing and infuriating for consumers. But it's no accident, according to Wayne Gorsek, the outspoken businessman who founded DrVita. He has made a fortune selling vitamins but admits the ones most Americans are taking are probably worthless.

“The shocking part to me, George, is that I can go to jail in America,” Gorsek said. “I can be raided with armed federal agents. I can have my inventory seized and destroyed. I can be put out of business, and be made out to be a criminal for telling the truth in America.”

Gorsek is a political conservative with the rhetoric of a fiery revolutionary. He bristles at the federal law that prohibits him from making specific health claims about the vitamins, herbs and supplements he sells under the DrVita brand name.

“They are limiting our First Amendment rights where we can't tell our customers the truth about our products,” he told the I-Team. “We have to water it down.”

Gorsek is ready to debate anyone about the proven health benefits of vitamins. He began researching nutrition at an early age, starting a garage-based supplement business that blossomed into the largest online vitamin retailer in the world. He then left that enterprise and started over with Dr. Vita, a sprawling facility in Las Vegas that might be the most advanced of its kind anywhere.

“I took 30 million and put it into this company, state of the art manufacturing,” he said.

The facility looks like a cross between a hospital and a spaceship. Employees and visitors don surgical suits and masks. The facility not only makes DrVita products but also helps other companies with their production.

One machine can produce 180,000 capsules per hour. Another one analyzes raw materials down to the molecule to confirm, for instance, that tumeric really is tumeric.

“That is state of the art for detecting the fingerprint of the vitamin, mineral or herb,” Gorsek said during the tour. “It is 100 percent vitamin accuracy.”

But Gorsek knows many of his competitors aren't so careful. The supplement industry is rife with exaggerated claims and subpar merchandise. Earlier this year, the industry was rocked when New York's attorney general went after four of the largest retail chains for selling supplements that contained very little of what they claimed.

Gorsek said the attorney general used the wrong test to make his point, but has done similar tests on rival products.

“It's got 1000 milligrams on the label, yet the active was only 1 percent,” Gorsek said. “It only had 1 percent active tuminoid which, to me, you might as well take a placebo.”

It gets worse. He said anyone taking a daily multivitamin from most of the major brands is probably wasting money.

“A typical vitamin sold at a major retailer is being sold at two-and-a-half cents per day,” Gorsek said. “The cost to manufacture that vitamin is less than two cents. Do you really think that product is going to work?”

The minimum daily requirements for most listed nutrients are simply too low to make much difference, he said. For decades, the debate has raged about whether supplements have any value. The medical establishment, including big drug companies, has largely argued that supplements are worthless, and that there is no evidence they produce any positive health effects.

Big Pharma and medical societies have even alleged that taking vitamins can cause cancer. The supplement industry has fired back with its own studies, including a global assessment by Frost & Sullivan that states proper levels of vitamins and nutrients could reduce major diseases and save billions of dollars annually in health care costs.

Multiple studies show, for instance, that vitamin D can reduce the risk of cancer and help alleviate depression. Gorsek said the most telling proof of all is that most major vitamin brands are owned by drug companies. He said it's no accident the levels of active ingredients in multivitamins are far below what is necessary to benefit one's health.

Said Gorsek: “Why do they put out products guaranteed not to work? In my opinion, they are doing that so when you get sick and buy their drugs, where they make 10 times more revenue and 100 times more profit …”

The preponderance of evidence from medical studies show definitive benefits from optimal levels of vitamins and nutrients, he said. But for every positive study, someone comes out with a negative one.

Gorsek said the studies funded by drug companies can be tailored to get the results they want. Supplements rarely, if ever, kill the people who take them but prescription medicine claims more than 100,000 American lives per year.

“Doctors were taught from medical school on that only drugs can cure or treat a disease,” Gorsek said. “They're taught that vitamins are expensive urine essentially, and that you get all you need out of your diet, which is not true. In America, there is a financial incentive for you to get sick.”

The vitamin debate will go on, but here is something the I-Team dug up. Several surveys of medical professionals were done to see how many of them take supplements. Roughly 70 percent of doctors take them sometimes, and more than half are regular users.

Some 94 percent of dieticians and nearly 80 percent of nurses take supplements, too. To learn more about the debate over dietary supplements and the online links to some of those studies, see the I-Team story and graphics that accompany this story.

When choosing a multivitamin, the basic rule is you get what you pay for. Tune in to 8 News NOW Friday at 11 p.m. as the I-Team explores what the Food and Drug Administration says about supplements and the big money that dictates national health policies.