“I think it’s important,” my friend insisted as he swallowed a vitamin that looked a lot like a gummy bear, “Cover your bases, you know.” Indeed the logic behind supplementary vitamin use seems sound at first glance. The idea is that if any dietary micro-essentials are missed, then a quick pill or a colorful, sugar-coated gummy can fill in those nutritional gaps and provide consumers with some reassurance. According to data from the Nutrition Business Journal, multivitamin sales have increased by 4% over the past decade and vitamin sales are expected to grow by 8 percent to make it a 9.2 billion dollar industry. But with about half of Americans taking multivitamins or dietary supplements, it is increasingly relevant to ask whether this habit is one worth having. Substantial research points to the idea that multivitamins are nothing more than reassurance, providing no more substantial health benefits than a placebo.
The market price on vitamins ranges from three cents to an expensive one dollar per pill. Yet studies conducted by ConsumerLab.com found almost no connection between price and quality, with many inexpensive vitamins passing every test and many expensive products failing to pass the review. Moreover, their studies did find that many products “contained levels of vitamins and minerals that exceed daily upper intake levels,” increasing potential for bodily harm. Additionally, contents of the bottle did not always match the claims on the label. Such failures raise reasonable suspicions that vitamin companies are far more concerned with maximizing their own profit than providing beneficial products for consumers. Even when sold as advertised, the daily expense of multivitamins adds up quickly, and many studies have been conducted to determine whether there exists a practical cost benefit. However, data has been conflicting. A study conducted by the Lewin group on “The Cost Effects of Daily Multivitamins for Older Adults” concluded that “daily use of a multivitamin by older adults is a relatively inexpensive yet potentially powerful way to improve one’s health” and that “the risk from not taking a multivitamin outweighs the minimal risks of taking one.” However, a very similar study on multivitamin use in women and men aged 65 and older conducted by the MAVIS trial group concluded, “It is highly unlikely that supplementation would be considered cost effective.”
A 2014 Men’s Journal article cites three major papers that together conclude that multivitamin use does “nothing to reduce the overall risk of cancer, incidents of heart disease, or the loss of cognitive skills.” The article, titled “A New Approach to Multivitamins: None a Day” includes the opinion of Dr. Eliseo Guallar, a nutrition researcher at Johns Hopkins who says of multivitamin users: “it seems to us that a return isn’t there. They’re probably wasting their money.” In 2013, CBS news cited similar statistics regarding the lack of efficacy of multivitamins and even pointed to studies that have shown taking beta-carotene or vitamin E may raise risk for lung cancer.
As millions of Americans buy and consume these supplements daily, it is clear that much of society still adheres to the “take your vitamins” culture. Indeed, for many consumers, they are seen as a nutritional safety net of sorts. However, current research suggests that overall, this “safety net” is economically and nutritionally not worth having.
Adam D’Sa is a freshman in Branford College at Yale University.