Fact or Fiction: The truth behind multivitamins

Most people are familiar with the satisfying feeling of taking a multivitamin gummy. It’s a guilt-free treat that many assume to be beneficial to their overall health. Yet, from marketing schemes to conflicting scientific studies, there is no shortage of controversy surrounding the health benefits of multivitamin supplements.

Vitamins are micronutrients, essential chemical compounds to human health obtained primarily through food. Most micronutrients are acquired through diet, with the exception of vitamin D, which can only be obtained through exposure to sunlight.

Deficiency of essential vitamins can cause numerous health complications. Long-term vitamin B-12 deficiency can lead to vision loss, anemia, and dementia, while inadequate levels of vitamin A, C, or D can lead to heart disease, frail bones, and a weakened immune system. 

Despite knowing the vital importance of these micronutrients, many still question whether multivitamin supplements have a positive impact on overall human health. In short, multivitamins do not have any known health benefits and amount to little more than a snack in a fun gummy form.

The McGill Tribune spoke with Dr. Joe Schwarcz, professor of Chemistry at McGill and Director of the Office for Science and Society, on the effectiveness of multivitamins, where he shared suggestions on which daily supplements people should be taking.

“[Multivitamins] are unlikely to do any harm, but they are unlikely to do any good either,” Schwarcz said in an interview with the Tribune. “People take multivitamins as nutritional insurance in case they don’t have a healthy diet, but micronutrient gaps in the diet can’t be filled  [by multivitamins].”

There are seemingly infinite conflicting studies on the benefits of vitamin supplements—or lack thereof. In one study, men taking supplements were found to be eight per cent less likely to be diagnosed with cancer. However, the overwhelming majority of research demonstrates that taking vitamin supplements daily does not decrease users’ risk of developing cancer in the long-term.

Today, most research findings show that supplements have zero impact on lifespan or health. The limited number of studies which suggest otherwise speak broadly to the benefits of supplements, providing evidence relating multivitamins to decreases in heart disease and improved brain function, immune health, and vision. 

“The problem with nutritional research is that you can find a study that backs up anything you want to push,” Schwarcz said. “It’s very important to know who has done the research.”

Companies such as Centrum, One a Day, and Vitafusion have leveraged the scarce number of studies that show that vitamins are beneficial to fuel this $123 billion industry.

These corporations have found a clever way to sell two packs of their nutrient cocktails to the average family, instead of one, through the marketing of gender-based multivitamins. One A Day and Centrum both sell ‘his’ and ‘her’ multivitamin varieties, although there is little that makes these gendered variations different aside from their packaging. Multivitamins supplements marketed to women simply contain slightly more vitamin D, calcium, and iron. 

“That’s a marketing move,” Schwarcz said in reference to the branding strategies used by vitamin manufacturers. “There’s no documented evidence that women and men need different amounts of vitamins. The only difference is body weight, and they already have children’s vitamins for that.”

Schwarcz noted a paradox in the fact that those who can afford multivitamin supplements are unlikely to be the ones who need them most.

“The situation here in North America is different than in the developing world,” Schwarcz said. “In some countries, people could be benefiting a lot from vitamin A, [but] in North America, we don’t have vitamin A deficiency.”

Schwarcz argues that there’s one exception to this no-supplement rule: Vitamin D.

“Some specific [supplements] make sense, like vitamin D, especially [in Montreal] where it’s cold,” Schwarcz said. “Also, we now see evidence that vitamin D deficiency can increase your risk of COVID-19.” 

With the exception of those who tan in the winter, taking a 1000 IU daily vitamin D supplement might be worth considering.

Ultimately, to maintain a healthy lifestyle and proper micronutrient intake, the cash spent on multivitamins is likely better spent in the produce aisle of the grocery store.

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