For quite some time research cast a doubt on the benefits of vitamin supplementation. Now it looks like at best it won’t do anything, but at worst could shorten your life span.
Already in 1996 researchers found that high amounts of vitamin A, the very vitamin often marketed as an “antioxidant” that supposedly protects you from them, may increase the risk of cancer and coronary disease.
In 2003, a Swedish study found that excessive consumption of the same vitamin may raise the risk of bone fractures up to seven times (PDF) – it was the fourth study coming to that conclusion.
In 2007, again vitamin A, but also E, were linked to an increase in prostate cancer among men who habitually used multivitamin tablets.
Now two large studies published almost simultaneously add to this growing body of evidence: The first examined vitamin E and selenium use among 35,000 men and again found that vitamin E users had a higher risk of prostate cancer. The second took data from 38,000 Iowa women and found that during a 19-year period the risk of dying was higher among women who used multivitamins and other supplements.
Antioxidants And Athletes
For athletes, the recommendation in the last decades has been that antioxidants will help their performance through disposing the waste products generated by strenuous exercise, “free radicals”. Especially the “big 3” antioxidants, vitamins A, C, and E, have been marketed as such by various supplement companies, who point at research like this 2005 study and others.
What they fail to mention is that most research stresses “a diet rich in antioxidants”, not antioxidant supplements. Your average apple contains about 2,000 physiologically active substances – a multivitamin may contain 12 of them and you are missing out on the other 1,988. It is a bit like reducing a philharmonic orchestra to the bass drums: You get the rhythm, but not the whole symphony.
And indeed, a 2008 paper found that oral administration of vitamin C – perhaps the antioxidant in the public eye – actually led to a decrease in training effect among endurance athletes.
Creating A Market
Vitamin C also is a good example of how a market for a product can be created.
Most people are aware that the dreaded sailor’s illness, scurvy, was cured by simply taking along a bunch of lemons, oranges or limes on trips – the vitamin C in those prove to be effective against it.
In the 1930s, a Swiss scientist found a way to artificially manufacture vitamin C, yet the problem was that no one really needed it. People simply got enough vitamin C through their nutrition and the times when sailors suffered from bad nutrition were long over.
But pharmaceutical company Hoffmann – la Roche, strained by the economic crisis of the time, saw the discovery as a chance to save itself. Beat Bächi, researcher at the University of Bielefeld, who conducted research on the history of vitamin C , says that within the company the word was that to sell artificial vitamin C, you simply needed a bit of “hocus pocus” and “invent some disease pattern for the people”.
True to its word, Hoffmann – la Roche started selling vitamin C as “Redoxon” and went on to claim that even a slight deficiency of it could make you tired and weak. The success of vitamin C, from virtually no market at all to possibly the highest selling vitamin supplement today, took its course. Hoffmann – la Roche still exists.
The campaign was in fact so successful that it was soon picked up by more companies, spread to the various other vitamins and that today we are hard pressed to find a food not coming with some vitamins added to it. Especially food products aimed at children proudly boast their vitamin contents, not to mention multivitamin products specifically made for them.
In light of what we talked about so far, this leaves a rather bitter taste to it. Most multivitamin tablets more than fulfill the recommended daily amounts. People using these and not taking into account what they get through their nutrition, may easily reach those dosages the research above classified as harmful.
Vitamin Supplement Doesn’t Mean Substitute
The risk of a multivitamin killing you is, if you look through the referenced research, still rather small. On the other hand, there also is no conclusive evidence that outside of a clear deficiency they will do any good. Is it time to save the money?
Maybe we should just remember that “supplement” is not a synonym for “substitute”.