Seen by many as a sort of “dietary insurance,” multivitamins are – by far – the most commonly used supplements on the market. But should they be? In late 2013, a group of experts reviewed the research and released a paper called “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements” that immediately received wide publicity for its harsh criticism of multivitamins. Most notably, the editorial went beyond just claiming that multivitamins were a waste of money; It stated that they were potentially harmful.
Of course, the media quickly responded with a host of sensational headlines including “Stop wasting your money!” and Don’t take your vitamins!” But is the case really closed, as the authors of the editorial writing? Let’s take a closer look at the article and the studies that they based their conclusions on.
Are Multivitamins a Waste?
The first thing that stands about this editorial is that the authors built their entire argument around just three studies – picked out from the dozens available on the subject.
One study looked at the effectiveness of daily multivitamin supplementation in patients who had already suffered from a heart attack. After five years, the editorial reports that there were no benefits seen. This does not look good for multivitamins. But the original study actually found that there was an 11 percent reduction in the risk of another heart attack – a statistically insignificant but not nonexistent result. All these findings show is that more research is needed to be certain as to the effects.
Another source used in the paper was a sub-study of the large Physicians’ Health Study II which found that daily multivitamin use for an average of 8.5 years had no effect on cognitive health. The original study, however, did note that the multivitamin that was used is a low-potency product and may simply have supplied doses that were too small to cause any change. Other experts have also suggested that the specific multivitamin used may have been a poor choice because of its use of artificial dyes that could potentially harm cognitive function. It’s also noteworthy that the editorial chose to ignore two other high-quality studies that found that folic acid, B12, and B6 could have positive effects on cognitive health.
The last study put forward in the editorial was perhaps the most attention-grabbing. Rather than just suggesting that multivitamins are useless, this study was used to claim that they are dangerous. The truth is that the original study “found adequate evidence that supplementation with vitamin E has little or no significant harm.” The concerns that were harped on by the writers of the controversial editorial were raised specifically for beta-carotene supplementation in smokers – a combination that has been shown to increase the risk of cancer. The same effect has never been seen in non-smokers, though.
The Big Picture
The fact is, then, that the famed editorial looked at a very limited amount of research and cherry-picked which pieces of the studies would be used. Many high-quality studies, though, continue to support the use of multivitamins by both athletes and health-minded individuals.