Since the dawn of time — or at least the dawn of pharmaceutical companies — vitamins have been hawked as must-haves for people looking to lead a healthier lifestyle. Now, the supplement industry is invincible with vitamin supplements, mineral supplements and more readily available over the counter for the consumer looking for healthy benefits to their diet. In fact, in 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that more than half of U.S. adults are using dietary supplements (e.g. multivitamins, minerals, and herbs), which is helping fuel what the Consumer Reports quantifies as the $27 billion industry.
Despite being around since the 1930s, The Week reports that vitamins and supplements did not take off until the 1970s when chemist and Nobel laureate Linus Pauling authored the best selling book Vitamin C and the Common Cold, when he recommended Americans take 3 grams of vitamin C to prevent colds and cancer. Despite the fact that over two dozen studies have proven that vitamin C supplements do nothing for curing the common cold, Pauling was successful in launching the ideology that there is no such thing as too much of a good thing (read: vitamins.)
But as of late, there has been some skepticism about the necessity (and, in turn, the effectiveness) of taking vitamins and supplements. Just last year, three studies found some questionable results with taking multivitamins. One study “found no evidence of an effect of nutritional doses of vitamins or minerals on CVD, cancer, or mortality in healthy individuals without known nutritional deficiencies for most supplements [they] examined.” Another study, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, debunked the preconceived notion that taking multivitamins can prevent cognitive decline, and a third study found that multivitamins and minerals had no correlation in preventing heart attacks.
“I think this is a great example of how our intuition leads us astray,” said Steven Salzberg, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, to NPR’s Shots. “It seems reasonable that if a little bit of something is good for you, then more should be better for you. It’s not true. Supplementation with extra vitamins or micronutrients doesn’t really benefit you if you don’t have a deficiency.”
But before you throw out all your vitamins, know that if you have a reasonable expectation from them, then they are still beneficial. After all, a 2012 study of men taking multivitamins found that their subjects who took the supplement reduced their risk of cancer by 8 percent.
“Research shows that the two main reasons people take multivitamins are for overall health and wellness and to fill in nutrient gaps,” said Duffy MacKay, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade group that represents supplement manufacturers, in a statement, according to WebMD. “Science still demonstrates that multivitamins work for those purposes, and that alone provides reason for people to take a multivitamin.”
In addition to the fact that vitamins may not have their promised benefits, the industry is gravely unregulated since all supplements are classified as “foods” (instead of “drugs”) under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. As such, manufacturers are legally allowed to sell their product without looking into safety so long as they do not claim their item will cure a disease.
“If vitamins were a regulated industry, megavitamins would have a black box warning on them,” said public health specialist Dr. Paul Offit of the University of Pennsylvania to AdWeek. “We are the victims of an enormous marketing campaign.”
Ultimately, as a consumer, you should focus on taking supplements that you need. For instance, if you have a calcium deficiency then take a vitamin D supplement or if you do not have enough iron, then take a pill for that. But taking “mega supplements” that promise to give extra of anything is potentially useless and possibly detrimental to your health.