Multivitamins are marketed to Americans under the assumption that they’ll boost energy, lessen stress, and prevent health issues that can contribute to chronic conditions. But is any of that really true?
According to recent scientific research into the subject, the answer to that question is a pretty definitive no. Three different studies published this week all found that multivitamins don’t have any meaningful health benefits — they don’t lower your risk of cancer, heart attack, cognitive decline, or early death. Nonetheless, a lot of people continue to pay for these products. Vitamin supplements have become a $12 billion industry in the United States, thanks in no small part to daily multivitamins. It’s estimated that half of all Americans take some kind of vitamin or mineral supplement.
In an editorial accompanying the new studies, medical experts urge those people to stop wasting their money. “We believe that the case is closed — supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful,” the doctors note. “These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.”
How did it get to the point where Americans are spending billions on what essentially amounts to a placebo pill?
As the Week reports, it’s partly because of the profits that vitamin manufacturers are making. Supplements are clearly lucrative, so even after studies began exploring the potentially negative effects of taking excessive amounts of vitamins, the industry quashed the FDA’s initial efforts to regulate the area. And it’s also because the notion that vitamins can prevent illness has been thoroughly seeped into mainstream society — largely driven by a Nobel Prize winning scientist named Linus Pauling. In 1970, Pauling published a bestselling book arguing that Vitamin C can prevent the common cold, even though the research on the subject has proven him wrong. Pauling’s ideas about vitamins took root anyway, probably because they seem logical on the surface.
“I think this is a great example of how our intuition leads us astray,” Steven Salzberg, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, explained to NPR. “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.”
Of course, it’s true that some populations have specific deficiencies and may need a vitamin to supplement a particular area. But the authors of this week’s editorial don’t think that’s the case for the majority of people currently taking vitamins. Instead of relying on supplements, the researchers recommend that Americans should simply be eating a balanced diet, exercising, and limiting their alcohol consumption.
There’s also room for more oversight in this industry. Thanks to a 1994 law, the FDA regulates dietary supplements under a different category than medicines. That means that vitamin manufacturers don’t have to get their products approved before marketing them to the general public, and may be getting away with making exaggerated claims about their health benefits.