For years, public health experts have practically begged people to stop wasting money on dietary supplements.
For one, many of these pills don't work. Study after study has demonstrated that favorites like multivitamins don't actually improve outcomes on a number of health measures, from staving off cognitive decline to preventing cardiovascular disease and cancer. The health benefits of probiotics are wildly exaggerated, and taking antioxidants like beta carotene and vitamin E might even kill you faster.
And because of lax regulation, there are well-documented concerns about supplement quality and adulteration. Supplement makers don't need to prove their products are effective or even safe before putting them on store shelves. That means there's no way to know that what's in your pill bottle works, or even that it contains what it promises on the label.
A Vox review of government databases, court documents, and scientific studies uncovered more than 850 products that contained illegal and/or hidden ingredients — including banned drugs, pharmaceuticals like antidepressants, and other synthetic chemicals that have never been tested on humans.
The lesson is simple: Unless you have a specific medical condition diagnosed by your doctor — like a vitamin deficiency — you should stop wasting money on these products.
Despite all the warnings, we continue to gobble up supplements
Despite all the warnings for years about the limited benefit and potential harm of supplements, people continue to gobble them up.
The US supplement market is already valued at $30 billion; the Council for Responsible Nutrition estimates that nearly 70 percent of US adults use dietary supplements, and more than 50 percent of those people use them regularly. In other words, tens of millions of Americans spend more than $100 per year, on average, on these products.
That's disturbing because, with rare exceptions, these pills either do nothing to help people or can even be harmful.
"I think where a few billion [dollars] can be saved is for the majority of people — that is, everyone without specific medical needs for it — to avoid multivitamins," says Pieter Cohen of Harvard Medical School, who has been studying the health effects of supplements for years. "That’s the biggest waste and the biggest potential savings, followed by botanicals."
Beware weight loss supplements, exercise, and sexual enhancers
Botanicals are plant-derived supplements that claim to be "all natural" and often promise to help people lose weight or boost their sexual drive or exercise performance.
In our search of the data on supplements that contained illegal or hidden drugs, we found that more than half were marketed for weight loss (431 in all). The second most popular category was sexual enhancement supplements, followed by muscle builders.
Some weight loss supplements contained appetite suppressants like sibutramine, despite the government's removal of sibutramine from the market in 2010 for safety reasons. It can increase blood pressure and pulse rate, causing coronary artery disease, heart failure, arrhythmias, stroke, and even death.
Other weight loss pills contained antidepressants like Prozac, or hidden laxatives, including the drug phenolphthalein. Phenolphthalein was banned by the Food and Drug Administration after it was found to increase the risk of irregular heartbeat and cause cancer with long-term use.
Another recent investigation by Frontline and the New York Times came to similarly dismal conclusions. There, reporters documented cases where tainted supplements caused terrible side effects and disease outbreaks. A probe of fish oil supplements — the third most popular supplement in America — revealed that roughly three-quarters of those on the market don't actually contain the amount of omega-3 fatty acids found on their labels.
You'd never know this from how supplements are marketed. Because supplements are regulated like food — and not drugs — under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, pill makers can basically put whatever claims they want on their bottles.
One analysis of supplement websites found 81 percent made at least one health claim — and more than half of those promised to treat, prevent, diagnose, or cure specific diseases. Think about it: If these pills were truly panaceas, the FDA would have to treat them like drugs, not foods.
We need to fight the urge for a quick fix
At a time when undernutrition and vitamin deficiencies were widespread, supplements made some sense. But now one of the more urgent health problems is obesity and, relatedly, overnutrition. Many common foods like bread and milk are fortified with vitamins, as well. Yet, as Emily Anthes explained in Slate, we still can't resist the pull of a magic pill:
Compare the two seconds required to swallow a pill with the constant vigilance necessary to exercise and eat right. And the fact that vitamins are available without a prescription makes them seem safe... But the risk-benefit calculus has changed. We know more about the risks, and it's clear that there's also less potential benefit.
So next time you think of popping a supplement, remember that right now you have no way of knowing for sure what's really in your supplement bottle. Despite the grandiose promises, the pills probably won't make you any healthier (unless you have a medically diagnosed deficiency). And they might even be hurting you.