Vitamins: A waste of money?

Here are three ways to waste money: Go to Las Vegas or any other locale where the institutions tell you that a 95-percent return on investments is feasible; pay close attention to your email for a fabulous offer to receive an inheritance from Ghana; or buy expensive and unproven vitamins, dietary supplements, proprietary cures, and other nonsense either via the Internet, from late night TV ads, or at common or garden grocery, pharmacy, or specialist stores. 

What is a vitamin? The word comes from a contraction of “vital” and “amine”—the latter are chemicals we need to survive, hence the former, derived from the Latin word for “life.” The word vitamin was coined by Polish biochemist Casimir Funk and, according to, refers to “any of a group of organic substances essential in small quantities to normal metabolism, found in minute quantities in natural foodstuffs or sometimes produced synthetically: deficiencies of vitamins produce specific disorders.” There are some key words here, such as “small quantities” and “found in … natural foodstuffs.” 

Yes, some people do require vitamins or other supplements such as those folks with pernicious anemia who must take vitamin B12 or pregnant women encouraged to take iron and extra vitamins, although there is a school of thought that this is counterproductive. And as always, there are no absolutes in medicine; there are some supplements out there that may prove beneficial such as St. John’s Wort for depressive illnesses, curcumin to reduce the chance of developing colon cancer, or a given combination improving mental acuity. As always, speak to your personal physician who is best positioned to advise you.  

What about the majority of vitamins and other supplements? All they do is make your urine expensive; you swallow the tablets/capsules, absorb them, and excrete that which you do not need, which turns out being most of what you just shelled out a king's ransom to buy. 

Yes, deficiencies can cause diseases, and in those who have a poor diet, malnutrition, or cancer for which they are receiving chemotherapy, vitamin supplementation may be required. But primary vitamin deficiency diseases? How common are they? Not common at all it turns out. For instance, an absence of vitamin C leads to scurvy, which has not been seen around since the days people regularly said “shiver me timbers” and crossing the Atlantic took many weeks. Rickets, from vitamin D deficiency? Not so much. Interestingly, the surgical art of orthopaedics, which means “straight children” came about from surgeons learning how to correct the deformities caused by rickets in kids who had poor diets in sun-starved northern Europe. Pellagra, which causes dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and death, is only found nowadays in people who eat an almost exclusive maize-based diet. Now I like my sweet corn in the summer, but in this country we get to eat other stuff stuffed with vitamin B3.

The issue is quite simple, the Food and Drug Administration broadly speaking has two ways of looking at pills and potions. The standard that prescription drugs must conform to requires extensive trials that take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. If these evaluations reveal a benefit for the use of the drug, the pharmaceutical company can make claims that speak to what was proven in the clinical trials such as “can reduce blood pressure” or “effective in treating such and such cancers.” The standard by which vitamins and other supplements are judged requires no clinical evaluations and, contemporaneously, much less robust claims such as “aids prostate health.” It is not that I am totally discarding that these substances may be valuable, just that if the manufacturers truly believe in them, why not invest in the clinical trials that will allow them to make claims that are justified by science? Otherwise they are potentially peddling snake oil and leveraging peoples fears, and that is never right in my book. 

Recent articles by the Cochrane Collaboration showed that vitamins and dietary supplements did not extend life. An article in the highly respected Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that apart from the odd case, there was no benefit to the billions of dollars half of all Americans spend on these substances.

So, want to stop wasting money? Take the cash you would have spent on vitamins and book a trip (maybe not to Vegas). And that Internet opportunity in Ghana? I don’t think so! 

Jonathan Sackier
Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.
Topics: Media, Aviation Industry, Financial

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