Are Vitamin Supplements a Waste of Money?

Don't expect a miracle drug if it isn't regulated by the FDA

Most American adults take a vitamin or supplement. (Getty)
Getty Images

Dietary supplements have this allure about them as cure-alls or the exact things that are missing from your body; that step between you and Chris Hemsworth. Well, not to kick you in Thor’s Hammer or anything, but, sadly, they are not.

Supplements, or vitamins — the terms are mostly interchangeable — are actually any one of a number of things that about 86 percent of Americans consume daily; or at least on occasion, according to the American Osteopathic Association. They’re minerals, herbals and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes and many other products that come in tablet, capsule, powder, drink and even energy bar form.

Supplements include product labels that list the makeup of whatever it is you’re taking, but unlike prescriptions or foods, supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

“In general, the FDA regulations for dietary supplements are different from those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs,” the NIH readily admits. “Unlike drugs, which must be approved by the FDA before they can be marketed, dietary supplements do not require premarket review or approval by the FDA. While the supplement company is responsible for having evidence that their products are safe and the label claims are truthful and not misleading, they do not have to provide that evidence to the FDA before the product is marketed.”

Which is kind of bananas. This is essentially saying that prescription drugs — the kind you can only get after your doctor scribbles something incoherent on his special pad of paper — are, thankfully, regulated by the federal government; but supplements that anyone can get at any drug or healthfood store, don’t need to be approved or checked up on by anyone. These same pills that you and I can purchase at will don’t even, under the law, have to do what they say they can do.

This is thanks to the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994, which the very industry allegedly being regulated helped to write and get passed. The law forbids the FDA from requiring any supplement manufacturer to have to prove its product is actually safe or effective at meeting its own claims before it goes to market; a direct contradiction of the NIH’s aforementioned statement.

“Because they’re not regulated, you don’t know what you’re really taking or if it will actually work,” registered dietitian and nutritionist, Dr. Lisa Young, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim,” tells InsideHook. “If it does [work], you don’t know if what you’re getting is what you think you’re taking or a mix of other drugs because nobody’s checking. They’re probably not doing you any good.”

Dr. Young says that the three biggest hints that a supplement is full of it is if it promises any kind of returns on sexual performance, weight loss or body building.

“There’s no real science to back those up,” she says. “Sure, you might momentarily speed up your metabolism from something that promises you’ll lose weight, but it could also speed up your heart rate and give you heart palpitations.”

This isn’t to say that every single vitamin on your local health food store’s shelves is completely bogus. Many people don’t or can’t get the nutrients they need from food alone and need to turn to over-the-counter remedies. But this exception to the rule is limited.

“Vitamins or minerals that you are actually deficient of, like most of us are lacking vitamin D, for example, those are usually fine to take,” Dr. Young advises. “If you have an iron deficiency, you’re anemic, it’s OK to take an [iron] supplement.

There’s very little vitamin D found in food and though it does occur naturally, like in salmon, tuna, mackerel and beef liver, according to Yale Medicine, we don’t eat enough of these foods for them to be our sole source of the essential nutrient.

Vegans and vegetarians tend to have low iron from a lack of meat and even those who do indulge sometimes have a difficult time absorbing it into the blood; while lactose intolerant people and others who abstain from or don’t eat enough dairy might need help getting more calcium into their systems.

“If you can’t get the doses that you need of each of these from food, then yes, these supplements are OK,” Dr. Young says.

If you do decide to try out a vitamin or supplement, whether out of genuine need or simple curiosity, this information needs to be shared with your doctor as each substance has the potential to interfere with other drugs or medical procedures you might face.

“Doctors unfortunately don’t really get involved in advising on vitamins; if you choose to or want to take a vitamin, that’s what’s nutritionists are there for,” Dr. Young says. “But if you’re already taking a supplement, you should always tell your doctor. People think they don’t have to but it very well might interact with prescriptions and could be potentially harmful. Supplements contain very high, concentrated doses of whatever it is you’re taking, which could be problematic.”

And while Dr. Young wouldn’t drop any brand names she’d tie her own to, she did offer up a piece of advice if you just can’t help yourself.

“I don’t recommend any one brand, per se, but always go with a larger one that you recognize,” she advises, as the bigger names typically have an equally matched following. “The smaller, unknown ones — no one checks in on them. And try to go natural, if you can.”

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