Hands holding pills

Is the vitamin supplement industry fooling us?

Medical student Tope Fisayo investigates why we spend billions of dollars on a product he's not convinced we actually need

Vitamins are tiny nutrients that we need in small amounts in our diets for our bodies to work properly. There are thirteen vitamins: A, C, D, E, K and eight B vitamins (it’s a long story). Without them you can get seriously sick, so it’s important to make sure you’re taking in the right amounts of all the right ones.

But too many vitamins can do just as much harm. A famous example of an overdose of vitamins gone very, very wrong was the case of Stan Jones, an American politician who turned himself permanently blue (a disease called argyria) by taking too many colloidal silver supplements. We don’t need to supplement silver in our diets because there should be no silver in our diets. But the industry manages to sell them anyway.



Most of us reach our recommended daily allowance (RDA) just through the diets we eat. But somehow, the supplements industry present themselves as the source of a quick and easy boost to your vitamin intake, and make billions out of it. Adverts for vitamins are on TV, on the radio, on the tube – pretty much any media space.

The thing is, once you’ve hit your RDA your body will either store the leftovers or get rid of the excess in urine – so we’re basically paying for enriched pee. In other words, we are literally flushing money down the toilet. Why do we spend so much on something most of us don’t need?



The pursuit of wellness is a powerful motivator. From hygge to juice cleanses, people love to feel like they’re taking care of themselves – and importantly, they’re willing to spend to get that feeling. The supplements industry has positioned itself as the solution to getting that wellness we want.

Plus, spending money on a healthy, happy purchase is a much more pleasant experience than, say, paying the bills. The vitamin supplements industry’s advertising departments does an impressive job at convincing us we need their products by framing the experience of buying them as a therapeutic experience – one step closer to the healthy life we’re looking for.

I’m not saying it’s wrong for a company to spend money on advertising. All ads are trying to sell us something (obviously) – but with health, it feels important to be informed. Our bodies are a pretty precious asset – and if we don’t have all the stats on what works and what doesn’t, it’s hard to know we’re making the right decisions. (I’ll be the first to put my hands up and admit I don’t ask the kebab man for a quick nutritional lowdown.)



The truth is we’re navigating a murky market. The sorts of claims brands selling vitamin supplements can make are governed by two sets of : medicinal, and food-related.

Vitamin supplements can be classified either as medicines, or as food. If a supplement is classed as a food, that means it’s not covered by medicinal laws, which are strict and ensure that the claims brands are making are backed by scientific evidence.

If you’re selling a food, you don’t have to prove it has any sort of healthy properties. What makes a food safe is very different to what makes a medicine safe. Companies selling vitamin supplements are not allowed to lie, but some fairly vague and misleading claims can fly under the radar in the food industry. This isn’t exactly good news for consumers, who are left to interpret pseudoscientific claims by themselves.

There is good evidence that certain vitamin supplements may be beneficial to the health of certain groups of people, like the elderly, pregnant women and children between six months and five years old. But if you’re not any of those things, as long as you’re eating a healthy diet then chances are you’re probably fine without. And if you’re not sure, it’s best to consult your doctor – not the nearest billboard.

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