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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Multi-Vitamins boost health

Posted by Harry,

A case in mind. Up to twohoundred and fifty vitamin capsuls and pills. 100- 500mg per day, aided the recovery from terminal Adenoma. Without medical intervention. To me that is the only way to end prostate Cancer.

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aging reduces the ability to convert sunlight to active D

Posted by Marcia,

The US Institute of Medicine (of the National Academies) reports that the ability to convert sunlight to the active form of Vitamin D via the skin diminishes significantly with age, e.g., 4-fold from age 30 to 60. So it's not just nutrition in this case.

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objective testing of supplements

Posted by Chris Batich,

It is very hard to test supplements in a "gold standard" randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled way, I am learning. For years we studied the role of iron in neurodegeneration with NIH support. A lot has been published by many groups. Solid science. Excess iron is bad. IP-6 chelates iron, and should work to reduce damage. Good cell culture and animal data exists. IP-6 (phytate) is not patentable, and an over the counter supplement. Hence, no pharma support. Companies that sell it are nervous about supplying it. The NIH wants an IND to use it if they fund a study. We have faculty volunteers, patients and care givers willing and anxious, but even a modest first study will cost several tens of thousands of dollars (pills, placebo, blinded data collection, blood testing, etc.) that can't be avoided. We have spent months trying to work through details, and are facing having to give up trying. This has potential use for Huntington's, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease patients, for instance. A large population.

Is there any central repository for supplements and placebos with good certification of analysis to facilitate such work? It would be a huge benefit to generating the kind of data needed to sort out what does work and what is suspected to work. Animal studies are frequently very different than human results, but many people are trying supplements now, but that good human patient data is not being produced in any useful way. These are safe, over the counter, inexpensive agents that should be the first things tested, not the my humble opinion.

Christopher Batich, Ph.D., FAIMBE
Pilot Program Director, Clinical and Translational Science Institute
Grodsky Professor of Materials Science and Engineering
Box 116400
University of Florida, Gainesville FL 32611

Phone (352) 392-6630
Fax (352) 392-3771
email: or

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