Vitamins: More not better

Vitamins sit on the shelf of a CVS pharmacy.

Kai Ryssdal: Most of us know that you can, in fact, get too much of a good thing.

Today, the Archives of Internal Medicine gave us the science -- at least as it relates to dietary supplements. Daily multivitamins and minerals might actually do more harm than good, the research shows.

Kind of disheartening, given that we spend $28 billion a year on all that stuff. Jennifer Collins reports has the story.

Jennifer Collins: By some estimates, as many as half of all Americans take some kind of supplement. And the habit starts early. Remember this jingle?

Flintstones vitamins ad: We are Flintstones Kids, 10 million strong and growing.

Susan Fisher chairs the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Rochester. She says its in our nature to go overboard.

Susan Fisher: In America, we have the tendency to think, 'gee, if one vitamin pill is good, maybe I'll take two today because I didn't eat very well.'

But more isn't better. The new study looked at nearly 40,000 older women over a two-decade period. Researchers found women who took multivitamins or iron were slightly more likely to die during that period.

Jaakko Mursu is the lead author of the study. He says the increase in risk wasn't dramatic, but:

Jaakko Mursu: People think or they take supplements that they would get benefits, so this is contrary to that belief.

Mursu says more studies are needed to know whether other factors, like illness, played a role in the deaths. Studies like this have done little to dent the supplement business.

Steve Mister heads an industry group that represents the supplement makers.

Steve Mister: People look at supplements as kind of an insurance policy that they're getting all the nutrients that they need.

Mister says sales continued to rise, even during the recession.

I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

About the author

Jennifer Collins is a reporter for the Marketplace portfolio of programs. She is based in Los Angeles, where she covers media, retail, the entertainment industry and the West Coast.
Log in to post9 Comments

Dawn V makes many valid points regarding the vitamin industry. But let's also examine the flip side of the coin. How much does the cancer "industry" make? What is the profit margin of pharmaceutical companies? Do they have influence in the education of medical professionals?

Let's be honest, what study will ever show positive results for vitamins when Big Pharma funds the studies?

I appreciate your loyalty, but after watching an evening of tv and at least 10 drug commercials with their novel length side effects (many including death) and an interview with a young woman who went blind after taking Yaz, I think I'll take my chances on the vitamins.

Your point of including REAL FOOD is great. Sadly most doctors don't bother. My daughter had an endoscopy and colonoscopy at the age of 25. I asked the doctor to speak to her about her diet. He told me it didn't matter what she ate! Is it any wonder people are turning to vitamins?

Ok, let me get this straight: research done on OLDER women for TWENTY YEARS determines that " women who took multivitamins or iron were slightly more likely to die during that period" but "more studies are needed to know whether other factors, like illness, played a role in the deaths." This is science?

Where are the studies that show women eating right and taking multivitamins often have an easier time during chemotherapy? Or that many of these women may have died as a result of side effects from prescription drugs? Who funded the study?

Jon, the vitamin/supplement business is a 27 billion dollar industry. Marketplace does similar stories about other aspects of health care, so why wouldn't it cover this research? And maybe they haven't covered stories about research showing the positive effect of vitamin supplements because there isn't that much conclusive evidence out there, at least when it comes to vitamin supplements taken by people that eat a varied diet. Sure, populations that have a deficit in nutrients due to substandard diets (whether due to poverty, or poor choices)will show symptoms of disease, and will benefit from taking vitamin pills or vitamins added to whatever food they have available, but the benefits of supplementing a healthy diet with extra, artificially synthesized vitamins has not been shown in research, with the possible exceptions of folic acid for pregnancy and VitD3/calcium for post menopausal women with family history of osteoporosis.

I'm curious as to why Marketplace has all of a sudden taken interest in negative research on vitamins, or have I missed all of Marketplace's stories on research showing that different vitamins, minerals, and herbs are beneficial for one's health?

Wow, all the anger this report has stirred up! "Don't take away my supplements and vitamins!" As an RN, I welcome this kind of story...with the internet providing easy access to results of research that question fundamental assumptions. OF COURSE this is just one study, and the Vitamin Police aren't gonna come knocking at your door to apprehend your supplements! But, what if you are wasting your money? What if ultimately it was proven that vitamins/supplements synthesized in a lab do not in anyway resemble the nutrients in REAL FOOD? You know, the stuff we have been eating for thousands of years? Maybe the folks that take vitamins thinking it will make up for a less than idea diet will learn that they are just creating very expensive urine!

I have been taking supplements to help with my dfiagnosed RA, and as kept me healthy and out of the Dr's office for 7 years. When I went to the Dr. he said he could tell I was taking care of my health. Lots of improvement. By the way I'm not dead. Pain NSAIDS, and a lot of recently approved meds cause heart probs, and kidney problems, cn I remind you, I'm not dead? This was a very stupid factless report usless and it makes me wonder who was behind it and why you mindlessly included on your show. You are close to loosing a listner.

Cause and effect need to be addressed in this story. If I don't feel well that means I'm more likely to die, it also means I'm more likely to take vitamins.

What passes for science is qutie outrageous. Given that it is likely that people who feel less well will take supplements, it is more likely they will die. This study says nothing at all, one way or the other, about the possible effect of such supplements. It is equivalent to a reserach observing that people who undergo medical treatment are more likely to die, and concludes that medical treatment is dangerous. Brilliant!!!!

The statistic showed a 2.3% increase in the test group however does not release the info on the other 98% that may have actually recieved beneficial nutrition. Besides don't follow the advice of a group that would like to control any and everything that you are or would put into your body. Fight for your freedoms people or we will end up like the england we ran from to create the free willed paradise know as the USA. Right now we are the United States of Special Interests and we will not survive this way.

With Generous Support From...