Millions of people worldwide use them, but are they of any value? And should we believe those who say they are potentially harmful? Should we just rely on a “balanced diet” to supply all the essential nutrients that we need, or, in this age of soil erosion and depletion, do we genuinely need more nutritional support than our diets can ever give us?
Research is a wonderful thing, but we also know that some studies can be misleading due to poor design, limited numbers of test subjects, vested interests and a whole host of other challenges. For the past 20 years I have been firmly of the opinion that mass-produced, synthetically derived vitamin and mineral supplements are of zero value to humans, so was interested to read about a recent overview conducted at Johns Hopkins, published in “Annals of Internal Medicine” on 17th December 2013, that indicated exactly the same thing. Let’s take a look at their conclusion:
“Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided.”
One of the trials involved in this conclusion lasted on average less than 5 years and was complicated by dropouts and poor subject compliance, so its relevance is questionable. It used a 28-component, high dose multivitamin. Whilst 28 ingredients might sound like a lot, consider this: in the plant kingdom, there are potentially as many as 25,000 beneficial nutrients, and they are found in the correct ratios – i.e. not artificially or synthetically concentrated. A high dose, chemically derived supplement is not going to have the same health benefits that we find in those who eat the full spectrum of natural-dose nutrients that we find in plants. So even if this study were well designed, and had fewer dropouts and continued longer than 4.6 years, I would not expect the pills to have had health benefits.
Looking at the other two trials cited in this research and conclusion, one was the Physician’s Health Study, which ran for 12 years and had good compliance. It (unsurprisingly) indicated no benefit of synthetic multivitamins for memory improvement. Other trials of “multivitamins” have indicated benefits for memory in older population groups, but on closer examination, these trials used a preparation that contained herbs and coenzyme Q10 in addition to synthetically derived vitamins and minerals, so the marginal benefits observed could easily be attributable to these additional ingredients.
The final study examined data that traced older adult male and female supplement users over a 10 year period. Whilst a marginal benefit in the reduction in cancer rates was seen in men, there was no such benefit observed in women, and no benefit for either sex in the reduction in the incidence of heart disease. The limitation in this overview is that the type of supplement was not stated, and the doses and compliance rates were likewise unknown.
It is all too easy to draw the wrong conclusions from trials and scientific reviews of this type. I have to say, I wholeheartedly agree in principle with the attention-grabbing headline given by Eliseo Guallar and the co-authors of this editorial which I have commented upon: Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements. Most supplements are indeed synthetic nonsense that contribute nothing to our health (please read “Supplements Exposed”, by Dr Brian Clement, for more information). However, to throw all supplements into the same category of “useless” is dangerous, since numerous whole food-derived supplements have outstanding benefits, which can be scientifically demonstrated. Avoiding these superior supplements as a result of this blanket statement would lead people to an inferior health experience.
My regular readers will know that I am a great advocate of supplementation, as long as it is the correct type. It must be whole-food derived, not synthetically manufactured. It must be processed at low temperatures so that the heat-labile beneficial nutrients are not disrupted. It must be proven to be bioavailable (i.e. when you take it, it is absorbed into the bloodstream, from which it can reach the target organs). It needs to contain all the nutrients that you would find in nature, in the same ratios that would be present in plants (i.e. no one particular nutrient unnaturally concentrated). For more information about my other criteria that are essential to look for, please listen to my audio Do We Need Supplements?, which you will find on the front page of my website here. I also tackle this large subject in one of the appendices of my forthcoming book The Whole Body Solution, shortly to be published by Hammersmith Health Books.