The Vitamin Industry: Supplement or Placebo?

Author: Wayne Chien

The BRB Bottomline

From CVS to Vons, most pharmacies or grocery stores will have a section dedicated to miscellaneous vitamins, some of which you didn’t even know existed. Although maintaining proper vitamin and mineral levels is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, this article will take a look at whether expensive over-the-counter supplements are worth their price and if you should continue to buy.

Market Size

Before doing more detailed analysis at the cost-to-benefit ratio of supplements, I want to give some background to what the dietary supplement industry looks like and the different types of supplements available for purchase. The vitamin and supplement industry in the United States is huge, generating revenues of $140.3 billion USD in 2020. The industry includes conventional supplements like multivitamins but also encompasses other dietary and herbal products such as sports nutrition products, skin care formulas, and Eastern remedies such as Ginseng and TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). With such a large market size there are clear financial incentives for suppliers to promote their products as treating a variety of ailments, however, not all supplements are created equal. To better understand the value you’re getting when purchasing these supplements, we need to divide them between those with real clinical benefits and those working on a placebo effect. 

The Snake Oil

With so much money to be made off selling supplements, there’s bound to be retailers who overstate their benefits to increase sales. Unlike traditional pharmaceutical drugs which require extensive efficacy and safety testing for it to be licensed and sold, dietary supplements are not evaluated by the FDA for preventing, treating, or curing any disease. This gives many supplement producers the leeway to oversell their product through misleading claims which are based on shaky evidence that has not been verified by any medical agencies. One such example was the Algal-900 DHA sold by CVS which claimed to boost memory and eye function yet lacked the evidence to back it up. Without federal regulation, many vitamins and supplements end up being snake oil with dubious medical benefits and work primary through the placebo effect. Not only can such use have dangerous interactions with other medications, they can also promote quackery based on non-scientific approaches such as homeopathic medicine or treatment misinformation. 

Seeing Through The Scam

To best protect ourselves from wasting our hard earned money or falling for the tricks of the snake oil salesman, the best thing for us to do is to run some sanity checks on the products that we might consider buying. For example, a popular weight loss supplement began to take off around the late 2000s based on miracle claims made about the Acai Berry. MonaVie, a Multi-Level Marketing company began making unfound claims about the medicinal properties of their supplements, which caught the attention of the F.T.C and launched an investigation on their business practices, leading to the arrest of one of the largest Acai sellers in the nation but doing little against the rampant expansion of new competitors looking to capitalize on the Acai craze. Though Americans seem to have a profound fascination with cure-alls and miracle drugs, for us to be less susceptible to these types of scams we are aware of the possibilities of a pill actually is. No supplement, whether it be berries harvested from the Amazon Rainforest or minerals from Mars, can make you lose weight if you’re not keeping a calorie deficit. Similarly, no supplement will help cure the chronic disease that have eluded the efforts of the medical community. The first step in preventing ourselves from being tricked by the snake oil salesman is to understand what the product can actually do to what seems too good to be true. 

Other Notable Dangerous Approaches

Besides vitamins and supplements, there are other forms of alternative medicine which may seek to scam the consumer who is seeking relief from their ailments. Homeopathy, which i’ve mentioned before, uses pseudo scientific theories which were made before the discovery of modern germ theory to treat certain conditions. Although it is worrying that Homeopathic medicines occupy the same shelves as real medications, the greatest risk in taking these homeopathic medicines is delaying real treatment, since their active ingredients is essentially a sugar pill (Click here to watch activists swallowing entire bottles of homeopathic medicines to prove their efficacy). Another thing to watch out for is culture specific medicinal practices such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Many people believe that because these practices are thousands of years old they must have some sort of medicinal benefits. However, most Western researchers have questioned the efficacy of these approaches as they rely on different conceptual approaches such as the existence of Qi. Though there might be lifestyle philosophies we can take out from Eastern medicine, from a pharmacology perspective there seems to be little evidence to show that Bears bile or Rhino horn can really cure you of anything. 

Back to the Real Stuff

After disregarding all of the exotic fruit pills and marketing ploys by the shady supplement producer, there remains a wall of supplements that have real medicinal and health benefits. These range from essential vitamins A-Z, minerals such as iron, calcium, or zinc, and others such as melatonin for sleep aid. The question now becomes whether or not these supplements will be beneficial for us since we technically need all of these vitamins and minerals to survive. Though it is true that these supplements contain vitamins and minerals humans need to survive, many doctors believe that supplements should not replace a balanced diet and have shown little long term benefits. The one exception to this is that people with higher risks for deficiencies can benefit from taking these vitamins, such as those who don’t get much sunlight taking a vitamin D supplement or those who are prone to osteoporosis taking a calcium supplement. Before making such a judgement for yourself however, having a conversation with your doctor about your nutritional needs is the best way to avoid the confusion of a shelf full of pills and give you more guidance on how to stay healthy. 

Take-Home Points

Instead of thinking about your body like a car that the doctor or pharmacy repairs when something goes wrong, many physicians are looking into a more holistic approach to medicine. The purpose of the doctor is not only to diagnose problems and prescribe adequate treatments (though they also do that), the ultimate goal is to live a better life. Living a healthy life doesn’t mean taking a bunch of supplements and medicine to make sure all our ailments are kept at bay, rather it’s about making healthy choices which prevent disease from occuring in the first place. There is no such thing as an exercise or weight loss pill which can replace walking or eating right, but there ways to maintain good shape to support living a healthy life. Instead of hoping that a supplement will protect us from death and disease, we should be active in protecting our health even if we like to believe that taking a supplement justifies eating fast-food everyday. 

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