Supplements – understanding the possibilities, accepting the limitations

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Supplements, Nutrition

Supplements – understanding the possibilities, accepting the limitations
As the furor fades over whether multivitamins boost mortality risk, a new study shows the true benefits of supplements, and industry shouldn’t be timid in promoting the implications.

While the controversial studies in the Archives of Internal Medicine​ and JAMA​ worried many industry minds, no knee-jerk drop in supplement sales suggests that the public may be finally understanding the true role of supplements.

During my daily trawl of the scientific literature, I stumbled upon a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging​ that led me to raise an approving eyebrow – it indicated that elderly people (folks between the ages of 70 and 90) were at significantly lower risks of deficiency if they used supplements.

The study’s findings seem so simple, so obvious, that it is perhaps easy to dismiss them, but think about the bigger picture: It did not attempt to show that a single nutrient at a single dose for a set period of time could influence disease risk, unlike the high profile type of studies that make headlines and lead the medical community to slam supplement use.

It simply showed that supplements help people to fill nutritional gaps.

“Due to age-related problems concerning the intake and digestion of nutrients, a moderate, regular supplementation might be a useful option for older people who are otherwise unable to satisfy their micronutrient requirements,”​ concluded the researchers.

No health benefits were reported, but merely helping people “satisfy their micronutrient requirements”​ is surely benefit enough, as a recent European health claim indicates​.

Studies to affect sales? What studies?

At the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s conference in Rancho Palos Verdes in California last week, representatives from both The Vitamin Shoppe and Sam’s Club said that the recent controversial studies from the Archives of Internal Medicine​ and JAMA​ had not affected supplement sales.

In another of today’s articles on NutraIngredients-USA​, Joe Fortunato, the chief executive of GNC, said exactly the same thing.

Does this mean that consumers are weary of such headlines?

Does it mean that people who consume supplements (and we’re talking about some 150 million Americans) trust the products, can attest to feeling a benefit, and dismiss the headlines in favor of personal experience?

It’s undoubtedly a combination of these and several other factors, but what I find important is that it has brought the debate about the role of supplements back to the fore.

Balanced diets?

This is nothing new – I’ve commented on this numerous times over the years​ – but it’s important to keep the message out there, and important that industry does the same. (Giving credit where it is due, industry initiatives like CRN’s Life…supplemented​ are successfully doing just that. Another example reaching a different, but equally important audience, is the Natural Product Association's “Fact of the Week” ​for key Congressional staff.)

The simple fact is that supplements supplement the diet, and the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging​ article captures that wonderfully. No responsible person would suggest that supplements are intended to replace food.

Medical experts are always quick to dismiss supplements, because ‘you can get all you need from a balanced diet’. That may be, but how many people have a balanced diet?

Let’s move the conversation away from how things should be, and look at how things really are: People do not have balanced diets, many people don’t even get out in the sun to top up vitamin D levels.

Supplements can fill that gap.

The reaction to the recent JAMA​ studies, and the lack of an impact on sales, suggests the public may now get this. Now comes the time to step up the educational effort on what types of supplements people need.

But industry should not become complacent just because sales haven’t declined. Au contraire​, responsible industry needs to continue to strive to improve: To marginalize poor quality producers, to raise safety levels, to invest in science to support the efficacy of the products.

The black clouds that hovered over the industry two weeks ago are clearing. The forecast looks promising.

Stephen Daniells is the senior editor of He has a PhD in Chemistry from Queen's University, Belfast (Northern Ireland), and subsequently worked worked in research in the Netherlands and France. He has been writing about nutrition and food science for over 6 years.

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Vitamin Manufacturing

Posted by Chris John,

I think somewhere along the way, the obvious has slipped away from us: supplements are meant to supplement a diet that lacks sufficient nutrition to maintain optimal health. Most people recognize their diets are poor and therefore supplement with vitamins and other nutrients they need. This is what vitamin manufacturing attempts to do and is doing it successfully as far as I can see. It’s a little ludicrous to conduct a large research study just to see the obvious!

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Great Article

Posted by William Bowers,

Gentlemen,as usual thanks for always publishing both side of the story.We are what we ingest, simple as that. If only the national media was as fair.

William J.Bowers

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