In human health, the importance of vitamins is indisputable. Proof of this are the numerous illnesses associated with a lack of vitamins in the diet. Motivated by such established facts, consumers want to make sure that they are consuming the right amount of vitamins in their daily food. However, the processing methods used in the food industry degrade the nutritious quality of products. As a result, people feel there is a need for direct vitamin intake to compensate for the vitamin deficiency in processed food. There are several unanswered questions in this practice which demand urgent action to protect public health.
Vitamins and minerals are key nutrients that are essential in the regular functioning of the human body. They are needed in small amounts and are usually acquired from vegetables and fruits (Dobson 12). When acquired properly, vitamins can competently play the role assigned to them and they can observe their duties, such as to keep the immune system running, contribute to the structural integrity of the body, and strengthen the sensory systems. Their deficiency in the body leads to problems in these systems, which may result in lethal risks for health. For example, “lack of vitamin D damages immunity to cause cancers, diabetes and infections” (Mirkin).
Vitamins can be classified as water soluble and fat soluble. Generally, the vitamins that are soluble in water are absorbed by the body in the quantities that are needed. The excess is excreted in urine. Thus, it appears that abundant use of pills containing such vitamins produces nothing but expensive urine. As for the vitamins that are soluble in fat, their excess is stored in fat tissues and is retrieved in case of need (“Vitamins and Minerals”). This is an undesired effect, because it tires the body, which is otherwise a perfectly adjusted system.
In the last century, a lot of research has been done to establish the amounts of vitamins and minerals needed for regular functioning of the body. With this knowledge, there is a growing concern among the public about their nutrition in recent years. People often think that the foods they are consuming do not contain necessary or sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals.
It is not difficult to see that this concern has been formed by the artificial agendas of certain specialists. These specialists use methods that evoke feelings of anxiety, fear, desire, and the wish for perfection. The visual media and the press have certainly been the main and most effective means of propagating this agenda. Based on consultation with the specialists, vitamin-producing companies make promises to the consumers through advertisements that highlight how good vitamins are for children, adolescents and the elderly. They promise, for example, that if certain vitamins are used, people will feel better, improve their memory or remove aging effects. They claim that some of the vitamins they are selling have a healing or preventive power against diseases about which people are most concerned or fearful. Cancer, cardiovascular problems and obesity are among the most commonly emphasized such diseases. In the same way, abusing people’s desire for a long life, they claim that some vitamins increase life expectancy. For children, their inherent desire to be like adults is abused and they are promised that if they use certain vitamins they will be strong. These claims are reinforced with video clips in order to make them appear more realistic, and they are further supported by frequent repetition in the visual media.
Food supplements designed to meet the needs of the body are also put in “costumes” to allure the consumers. Product packaging uses big bullet points to present information about their extra vitamin content. In parallel to this, in the stores where these vitamins are sold, life-size pictures of famous or well-built people are displayed.
As a result of all these efforts, many people think that a healthy life is not possible without vitamin pills. According to a survey by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) two decades ago, around fifty percent of the population from 19–50 takes a multivitamin pill every day. That survey showed a significant increase compared to another one performed five years earlier (Driskell). According to this trend, the vitamin supplement consumption is likely to have achieved much higher levels in our time.
Thus, an enormous market has formed for vitamin and mineral pills. It is estimated that this market amounts to an annual sales value between three and five billion dollars (Anderson, Wilken). With a drive to get a share of the sales, all supermarket chains have opened sections for vitamin pills and sell various kinds of vitamin supplements. Not only is the vitamin industry doing all these promotions for its own benefit, but media companies are also thriving on such advertisements. Unfortunately, this is sometimes a major reason for the media not to go after certain issues.
Research shows that people get the correct quantity of vitamins and minerals if they consume a variety of natural foods and drinks. In countries with a high per capita income, some foods and drinks are even enriched with extra vitamins to ensure that vitamins are taken in sufficient amounts. As a result, for a person who is on a normal diet, a multivitamin pill is very likely to be excessive. With regard to these pills, nobody knows what amount is good for which person under what conditions. It is strange that the quantity of fruits and vegetables corresponding to the same amount of vitamin contained in a multivitamin pill is not revealed. Perhaps if this were calculated, the insanity of vitamin supplements would become evident. Do we really need to eat as many vegetables as a cow or a horse?
At the top of the direct vitamin intake options are vitamin pills. The majority of vitamin pills are marketed as a multivitamin-combinations of different vitamins and minerals. Supplying various combinations of vitamins in a single pill seems like a good idea at first. However, when we look at the production of vitamin pills, we see that the production process has not been standardized. Each company makes its own vitamin combinations and markets them. On top of their content, the daily consumption of synthetic vitamin pills is also variable based on the demands of the individual consumer. Although some companies include a recommendation on the packaging, in the end they say that their product can be consumed to the extent it is needed. For many vitamin pills, information about their solubility in water or fat is not present either. However, such pieces of information are of vital importance for their healthy consumption.
In recent times, with their wider use, these synthetic pills have been held responsible for health problems, contradicting expectations of health improvement, but so far they have not gained a bad reputation related to side-effect or harm. The prevailing view is that the more vitamins one takes, the better one’s health. This view might be true for natural vitamins; however, it is not so for synthetic vitamins. Generally, side-effects are associated with high dosages and undiluted intake, neither of which occurs in their natural counterparts.
Multivitamin pills are usually combined with minerals. Thus, while taking vitamin supplements, minerals are also taken, regardless of the need for them. However, similar to vitamins, minerals also are bad for human health when taken in excess. They interact with and counteract each other, and hence they disturb the body’s equilibrium.
In a study by Goran Bjelakovic and Christian Gluud, which was published in the journal of National Cancer Institute, it is stated that “Our diets typically contain safe levels of vitamins, but high-level antioxidant supplements could potentially upset an important physiological balance” (Bjelakovic, Gluud 742). They claim that antioxidant vitamins (A, C, E) do not provide any benefit when consumed in pills: if they are used as such, each results in certain forms of harm according to their function in the body. Bjelakovic and Gluud proved that such vitamin pills neither prevent nor cure cancer, that they do not protect the cardiovascular system, do not increase life expectancy nor alleviate the effects of aging. On the contrary, they showed that these antioxidant vitamin pills increase the risk of the diseases mentioned above. For example, a male person who is taking one multivitamin pill per day is doubling his risk for developing prostate cancer.
Some supplements can also have drug-like effects which present risks for people with certain medical conditions. A vitamin supplement brand was found to have potentially dangerous interactions with a number of prescription drugs (“‘Miracle’ Health Claims”).
At the very least, such side-effect-related cases call for a sound understanding of how these substances interact with the body. Can the human body convert synthetic vitamins to a usable form? Can they be stored and used later in case of vitamin deficiency? Are vitamin supplements, especially synthetic pills, as effective as natural vitamin sources, such as fruits and vegetables? What are the side effects associated with synthetic vitamins? What happens to vitamins in the case of overdose? Unless there are factual answers to these questions, vitamin pills should not be considered safe to use, and people should not use vitamin and mineral pills without consulting a doctor (“Vitamins and Minerals”).
Here is the dilemma now: on the one hand, vitamin manufacturers are struggling to show the benefits of vitamin pills so that they make more profit; on the other hand, there is other research proving the detrimental effects of vitamin pills. At this point, it is nice to see a parallel dilemma in the fast-food market. If you go to a fast-food restaurant, their “nutrition facts” sheets show how healthy their food is. They even compare their food with other companies’ food in order to highlight their quality. However, there is a general consensus about unhealthiness of fast-food as demonstrated in the movie “Supersize Me”. Be it the food industry or the dietary supplement industry, there are claims from the producers which contradict the facts observed in real life. What to believe and who to trust are not clear.
One recourse in this ambivalence is the federal regulations or official advice from government scientists. In theory, health-care standards are established by either legislators or health organizations. However, in practice, there is a lack of institutes which can undertake the control of production of synthetic vitamin pills. In the US, for example, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s report, “Dietary supplements are not required to undergo government testing or review before they are marketed” (“Miracle’ Health Claims”). So, existing US health organizations, such as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), do not accept any responsibility.
The main reason for not checking the harm associated with vitamin pills is that their side effects emerge in the long run. Consumers do not have the means to prove their cases, and consumer associations do not have enough financial power to take legal action against the producer companies. Therefore, there is no legal or practical base to pursue allegations related to the use of vitamin supplements. Given all this, using vitamin and mineral supplements is not very different from gambling with our health.
The above discussion provides enough information to evoke questions in the mind of the reader. Protecting people from the harm caused by vitamin pills is not possible through financial or judicial means at present, but it may be possible in the future through their long term results appearing as people with severe health problems. Let us hope that the people who have control over these issues will act in consideration of everybody’s health as an invaluable trust granted to them.
Alper Bursali is a senior student at West Virginia University, Biology Department.