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Don't Believe The Hype: How Multivitamins Conquered The Land Of The Free

Medically reviewed by Carmen Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on July 7, 2022.

Would The Real Vitamin Please Stand Up!

So what actually is a vitamin?

Well, technically speaking, there are only 13 human vitamins: the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, K; vitamin C and eight B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12).

Unfortunately, many people tend to call other dietary supplements (including fish oil, herbal remedies, and minerals), vitamins as well.

But the original term "vitamine", coined in 1912 by Casimer Funk, referred to specific chemical compounds that resolved specific deficiency diseases, that's all.

For Every Vitamin There Is A Deficiency

History is about the only thing that links vitamins together as they are all chemically unrelated.

All vitamins were discovered because of specific deficiency diseases, for example:

  • scurvy: vitamin C deficiency
  • beriberi: vitamin B1 or thiamine deficiency
  • rickets: vitamin D deficiency
  • pellagra: vitamin B3 or niacin deficiency.

In the olden days, food wasn't as plentiful and famine and war contributed to poor diets so deficiencies were much more common.

The discovery that you could actually take a substance to cure an illness was revolutionary. It was the first time the idea took hold that you could get sick from something you didn't have, as opposed to an infection that you caught.

Making The Most Out Of A Catchy Term

Vita is Latin for life and even as early as the 1920s food marketers began to make money out of the term vitamin. Their reasoning: if vitamins were necessary to prevent deficiencies in small amounts, imagine the benefits if you took more!

Even people on healthy diets were persuaded that they still needed these particular substances. Donuts were fortified with vitamins for "pep and vigor". Chocolate was embedded with five different vitamins for "energy". Wild claims were made without fear of refute as these were invisible substances that nobody could yet measure.

Bringing Sensibility Back: Reigning In Wild Claims

There's nothing like a new law to calm the chaos.

Since 1994, labels on dietary supplements have been subject to regulations imposed by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). These regulations prevent a dietary supplement being labeled as a treatment, prevention, or cure for a specific disease or condition.

So Who Needs Vitamins?

There are two things you need to know about vitamins:

  • You can get all the vitamins you need from a well-balanced diet
  • Fresh food is the best source of vitamins.

So who actually needs to take vitamins?

The answer is those not eating a balanced diet or not consuming certain food groups; which is a lot of Americans according to a survey published in The Journal of Nutrition. So before you reach for that fortified fruit juice, cereal or multivitamin, consider expanding your diet to include foods that contain vitamins you may be missing out on.

Certain Deficiencies Still Common Today

Certain lifestyles, religious beliefs, and eating habits mean that some people do require supplemental vitamins or minerals. For example:

  • Strict vegetarians/vegans who consume no animal foods may need vitamin B12
  • People with various gut conditions, such as Crohn's disease, celiac disease, chronic diarrhea, or gastric bypass surgery, that interfere with the absorption of vitamins in food
  • Women need folic acid (vitamin B9) just before and during pregnancy to help prevent neural tube defects in babies
  • Some pregnant women may also need iodine, iron, or calcium supplementation
  • Seniors, those with limited sunlight exposure, people with dark skin or their newborn babies, may need a vitamin D supplement.

Other types of dietary supplements (such as zinc, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, or selenium) may also be required by some people.

Go For Naturally Occurring Vitamins In Fresh Food Over Fortified Products

If you eat a well-balanced diet, you really don't need supplements.

  • Everybody should aim to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables every day - choose a variety of colors.
  • Wholegrain cereals and grains are rich sources of B vitamins, vitamin E, minerals, and fiber.
  • Meat, fish, and animal-derived foods are the only natural sources of vitamin B12.
  • Egg yolks and oily fish such as salmon, tuna, and sardines contain vitamin D, providing an alternative source to sunlight.

Finished: Don't Believe The Hype: How Multivitamins Conquered The Land Of The Free

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  • Guallar E, Stranges S, Mulrow C, Appel LJ, Miller ER. Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements. Ann Intern Med. 2013;159:850-851.
  • Neuhouser ML, Wassertheil-Smoller S, Thomson C, et al. Multivitamin Use and Risk of Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease in the Women's Health Initiative Cohorts. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(3):294-304.
  • Offit P. The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Supplements. The Atlantic 2013.
  • The benefits of vitamin supplements. August 2015. Harvard Health Publishing.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.