Stop wasting your money on dietary supplements

Mar 15, 2016

Photo credit: lineartestpilot/Shutterstock

By Julia Belluz

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.


25 comments on “Stop wasting your money on dietary supplements

  • I like the idea of science deciding what food, drugs, and dietary supplements I take. Unfortunately, it does not follow that I should stop wasting my money on dietary supplements. The scientific method never gives 100% accurate answers and requires large amounts of money and time. I will be dead before the scientific method ever has a chance to work.
    We currently have a system that lets consumers decide what dietary supplements to take. Your article seems to be advocating a system like the one we have for proprietary drugs where a government panel decides what is scientifically true. That panel is called the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States.
    It doesn’t take much research to show that the amount of harm done by FDA approved drugs far exceeds the amount done by dietary supplements. This harm comes in many forms;
     The FDA approves drugs that actually kill people (e.g. Fen-Phen, Baycol,Vioxx, Bextra, Tambocor).
     The FDA’s process delays introduction of drugs that save people’s lives (e.g. Provenge)
     The FDA process is so expensive that only patentable compounds will be sponsored for trials. Thus, common, cheap compounds are ignored in favor of patentable compounds.
     The FDA’s science is weak. The criteria for approval are dubious at best and political at worst.
    As good scientists, we want perfect scientific evidence for everything we do. In the real world, this does not exist now, and will not exist in my lifetime. In the meantime, I am much more comfortable taking dietary supplements than FDA approved drugs.
    Jeff Justice

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  • While I agree with some of what @jjustice says above, I am not in agreement with a full scale condemnation of the FDA. Obviously the FDA is a bureaucracy. I know, I deal with them annually (and at their whim) at my place of employment. We create software that is known as a Class II Medical Device (the 2nd highest classification) due to its possible direct effect on patient care. Because of this they can inspect us whenever they’d like, even after we pass a very stringent initial inspection necessary to obtain the proper clearance to market and sell this product. But in this corner of the very large room that is the FDA, this process generally works, however much of a pain in the arse it can be.

    But the focus of this article and the wholesale condemnation of supplements is disappointing. There are two issues here and it seems to me, from this excerpt at least, that they are somehow conjoined. That the supplement industry could use some cleaning up I don’t dispute. That supplements are worthless or a complete waste of money is a narrow minded view at best.

    As a longtime fitness devotee and advocate I am well aware of the fallacy of the “perfect diet” that, theoretically, if one were to eat daily, forever, would eradicate the need for supplemental constituents. This of course does not take into account the additional requirements athletes might need (protein, healthy fats, etc) or the wide variance of individuals. I have well intended, portly coworkers who talk about “expensive urine” (as if I spend thousands on supplements; I don’t). I tell them that if I ate a diet daily comprised of whole foods that was aimed at optimizing my health, my urine would be just as expensive, if not likely more expensive. But I won’t go off on a tangent or offer more unless this post takes off. But even a small glimpse into the evidence pointing towards the benefits of Vit D, omega 3 fatty acids (fish oil), niacin, etc, makes me disappointed that such a flaccid, simplistic piece like this one landed here.

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  • While I would never support obvious fakery or the use of snake oil to the exclusion of legitimately prescribed drugs, I do believe that given most peoples’ imperfect diets and individual needs, supplements are often a beneficial addition to daily intake. If there is a concern in your medical profile or lab tests, you can choose to try some herbal remedy or vitamin supplement, and then see if there is a change on your subsequent tests. If it worked for you, then there you go, if not, then IT goes.. I have used some supplements to very powerful effect that many physicians don’t want to hear about but others see the results for themselves, and quietly ask for more information. After licensing as a vet tech and subsequently earning a BSN, I know that knowledge is an ongoing process and official opinions change with financial opportunities.

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  • You don’t need the FDA to tell you that fresh vegetables are good for you. You don’t need the FDA to tell you that high fibre low glycemic cereal breakfast is good for you. You don’t need the FDA to tell you that lean protein is good for you. You don’t need the FDA to tell you that a healthy diet, with as much colour on your plate is good for you. You don’t need the FDA to tell you to exercise daily.

    And you don’t need the FDA to tell you that a supplement is safe to take, because if you are eating the above diet, you don’t need any supplements.

    There is ample validated scientific research available to advise you on eating healthy food and how much exercise to undertake.

    Australia it is said has the most expensive wee in the world. Don’t piss your money down the toilet. Just eat a rational evidence based diet. And…. Fad diets are never rational nor evidence based.

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  • @david-r-allen

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here. But while I agree in principle I’m not convinced it’s practical (for many) and I do think it’s a bit utopian as I mentioned in my initial post. From a practical standpoint it’s simply not a currently tenable stance for me personally and many others I’m thinking. Why? Time; practicality; expense.

    The prep time (both at the market and at home) is prohibitive for me – I’ve tried this before and I simply don’t have enough time to shop and prepare the appropriate meals on a daily basis. The practicality (getting outside in the sun, daily, with enough time and exposure to elicit the appropriate Vit D formation, I am consistently very low) given my busy life is unreasonable, and I live in Florida. I’m sure it’s even far less reasonable for people in the north, especially during the winter months. And even the expense, at least in the urban areas in the States. The few shops in my area, I’m thinking Whole Foods primarily, are 2-3x the cost of most other supermarkets.

    None of that jibes with my life at this time. Perhaps when I’m retired. And maybe this is easier in Australia and other countries. But for now, with demonstrably low levels of certain nutrients (Vit D) and the need for other nutrients depleted by my exercise regimen (Mg+ and others), and my efforts to avoid horrible statins for the rest of my life (fish oil, niacin, Co Q 10), it is easy and practical, not to mention inexpensive, to obtain this through smart supplementation.

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  • Being a site dedicated to reason and science, it is EXTREMELY disappointing to see this posted here. I am not going to go into the actual study after study that clearly shows a significant portion of the north american population is not getting adequate amounts of many nutrients and micro-nutrients. But what I must comment on is the fact that you even cite the so-called irresponsible “studies” above that were VERY poorly performed. With respect to the cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease and cancer, these were phone call studies done on already sick people and simply asking if there were improvements. No assessment was done on blood levels or changes in these vitamins or bio-markers of. Also many of the doses given were severely inadequate even for the general population, how could change be expected? If you’re going to be a scientific foundation, be sure to thoroughly research your sources before citing them?

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  • Joe #7
    Mar 17, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Being a site dedicated to reason and science, it is EXTREMELY disappointing to see this posted here.

    Hi Joe.

    I see you are new to posting here, so may not know that articles are presented here for critical analysis and discussion.
    This does not imply an endorsement of their content.

    Your criticism of any dubious content is therefore relevant and to be expected.

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  • @ #7 – disappointing to see this here

    Each article has sub-groups attached to it. E.g., this article has “science” and “skepticism” attached (see very top).

    Although, everything should be approached thusly, in which this site excels, imo.

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  • Anyone, and I mean ANYONE, apart from those suffering from disease of certain types, can get (apart from VitD) all the vitamins, minerals their body needs by eating a properly balanced diet. People who say they don’t have the time to shop and cook sensible meals must simply have their priorities wrong. It’s simple to cook a healthy meal and not really time consuming either. It’s also simple to stop doing whatever it is that is consuming so much of your time. It’s a choice we make. For anyone to say that they can’t spend one hour per day doing what should be important for their health, is simply not true. You choose not to have the time by doing other things instead.

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  • Hi @snoops27. Apparently it’s simple and not particularly time consuming for YOU to do these things that we both agree can be done and are beneficial. But to assume that your life and circumstances, particularly concerning time constraints and commitments, are similar enough to all others (which you do with your umbrella presumption that if YOU can do it, we ALL can do it) is both patronizing and presumptuous. To imply that someone like me and/or other posters have “their priorities wrong” because they aren’t doing what you’re doing is insulting.

    I can assure you, as a health conscious single parent who works both a full time and part time job, spend copious time on filial duties, makes it to the gym consistently and consumes a reasonable diet, filling needed micronutrient gaps in the most convenient way possible, I don’t need the lecture, especially when a quick reading of my posts should show that I agree in principle but not in practice for reasons I elucidated.

    Don’t begrudge me my few supplements and cloak it in your imagined superiority.

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  • Wrong, it IS a choice, and if you’re telling me that you can’t make time to provide your son(s) a properly balanced diet, with it’s associated benefits, without the need for suppliments, you’re not much of a parent.
    Unfortunately, it would seem that you do,in fact, need the lecture.

    Your implied superiority is, sadly, misplaced.

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  • Just like it’s a choice for me to eat a reasonable diet and fill in the gaps as I choose. The old mythical all encompassing “balanced diet” is simply a branch on the tree of the Natural Fallacy. It’s attainable, as I’ve already noted several times, but not easily or optimally. But as I see you’re a new member and have commented on exactly “0” other posts, I heretofore shall assume you’re a troll until proven otherwise.

    My parental skills or lack thereof, your opinion of which means absolutely nothing to me, are not part of the OP and I certainly won’t give oxygen to a suspected troll by providing details.

    Lastly, I didn’t imply superiority; I simply presented a viewpoint and gave supporting reasons for that viewpoint. You however implied superiority because your view is dogmatic, not measured.

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  • I think you just have to know what you’re doing. (And clearly you, Steve, do.)

    For example, I asked my opthalmologist about carrots or beta-carotene (Vitamin A, I think). He said, yes, Vitamin A is good for vision – but it has been proven to cause cancer too.

    But vitamin supplements can be very good, according to my own researches. Vitamin B and Folate is good for mood. I don’t agree with the rigid OP that you have to have a “condition.” Nor do you have to consult with a physician. You can consult reputable sources and/or people whose judgment you trust and whose knowledge you respect. Just like anything else.

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  • The best advice I ever read concerning nutrition was ‘Eat food, not too much, mainly plants.’ To which I would add ‘raw plants where you can’. In addition to getting plenty of exercise and reducing stress that’s pretty much all you need. Almost everything else is not only a waste of time and money, it may even be causing you harm.

    The irony is that eating well not only improves health it’s also cheaper than eating poorly. Having said that, there are people who require extra vitamins to correct a known deficiency. I take Vit D because my blood levels were low, (probably because I live in Canada). But that’s on my Doctors advice. Filling oneself full of this or that supplement simply because of unsubstantiated claims by the manufacturer is not very smart.

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  • @steven007

    Sad that your lifestyle prevents you from shopping for healthy food. No idea how old you are or your income, but I am getting echo’s of myself. 16 hour days. Working times around the clock. Diet on the run. Appalling. So I am paying now. Shortened life expectancy. Less Lego with the grandies.

    The prep time (both at the market and at home) is prohibitive for me – I’ve tried this before and I simply don’t have enough time to shop and prepare the appropriate meals on a daily basis.

    To channel David Suzuki’s theme of “Wisdom of the Elders” its too late for your body when you get to retirement, as I have found to my detriment. You need to do it now. Whatever your lifestyle. Whatever your priorities, you need to re-assess because you’re going to be dead for a very long time, and if there is an afterlife, you will rue to “Time” decision.

    I’ve only shopped in American supermarkets a few times. Could you buy some lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, celery, capsicum, 4 bean mix, a jar of olives and some fetta cheese, chop it all into a bowl. No dressing. Maybe a chicken fillet dusted in cajun spice in the pan. This is typical of my diet now.

    Remember, the cemeteries are full on indispensable people.

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  • Can I just add…..

    If you are going to eat a lot of green food, you have to enjoy it. Picking vegetables and fruit, I smell them. If it smells sweet and like a melon, say, then you will come back for more. Broccoli should smell like broccoli etc…

    A lot of supermarket stuff is either not ripe or mainstream bland. We are lucky that we have Indian and Turkish/kurdish shops around, that cater for their own, and we can buy much better tasting stuff which is cheaper as well. Smell the goods is all I say.

    @ David

    A few drops of good quality black olive oil and a sprinkle of sumac and I’m with you!!!

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  • @Olgun

    If you are going to eat a lot of green food, you have to enjoy it

    My experience is that many people (especially us Westerners) don’t know how to cook. I know this because before I met my wife I was in that group.

    Ever since I changed to a plants-only diet it continues to amaze me how amazing a healthy meal can taste, and how quick it is to prepare. Most meals we make take less than 30 minutes. I can make a delicious, nutritious vegetable soup in 10 minutes. A lot of it is down to spices. People who come from a meat and potatoes background get spoilt; you don’t need to do anything to a good steak to make it taste great, just toss it on the grill. But vegan food requires more thought. You need to add a lot of spices, which means knowing which ones to add and how much. An added bonus of spices is that they can replace salt.

    For anyone who wants to start down this road I suggest buying a good food processor and using recipes from a site such as this one . I promise once you start you won’t look back.

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  • @david-r-allen

    Sad that your lifestyle prevents you from shopping for healthy food.

    Hi David. I probably should have been a bit more clear. But I didn’t think I was going to get push back on my very modest supplement plan. I eat reasonably well, very well, depending on your strict definition. Do I eat all of the leafy green vegetables I would like to everyday? No. Do I eat all of the fatty/omega 3 laden fish I would like to every week? No. Do I go out into the sun every day like I’d like? No. Hence my very modest supplement program to fill gaps. Also I am a competitive amateur athlete (cycling/weightlifting) and I train very hard so my requirements for certain things are a little bit different than the average American couch potato (yes, stereotype).

    With a degree in the biological sciences and an early career as a laboratory scientist, I know my way around my lab values in an intimate way. One of the great advantages of the kind of lab work I did was the ability to get blood drawn and have extensive testing done on a whim and free of charge. This also allowed me to see how dietary changes and/or supplemental additions affected lab values over a period of time. I know where the gaps lie and I know the tried and tested scientifically confirmed constituents to aid in my nutritional endeavors and athletic goals.

    Nothing I take is outlandish or expensive. All of that said of course one day I would hope to have the time to do the things we’ve been discussing. But the OP is misleading and short-sighted as has been noted. And that’s pretty much the only point I wanted to make.

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  • 22
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    After reading many of the posts in this thread, I see that most posters focus on the argument for or against the necessity/utility of dietary supplements. I just wish to say that I have no definite opinion on the utility of dietary supplements. The reason I said that the PBS documentary I linked to was an “eye opener” is that due to the regulatory situation specific to the USA and Canada, it is virtually impossible to know WHAT the suppliers of those supplements actually put in those caps and pills unless you have it analyzed by an independent lab.

    And THAT, in a nutshell is my concern. I don’t really have a problem with supplements as long as the suppliers are subjected to the same tight regulations than off-the-shelf and prescription medication and that the regulatory agencies make sure that you’re really buying what is claimed to be in that bottle and nothing else.

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  • NearlyNakedApe #22
    Mar 19, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    due to the regulatory situation specific to the USA and Canada, it is virtually impossible to know WHAT the suppliers of those supplements actually put in those caps and pills unless you have it analyzed by an independent lab.

    I take it you are referring to examples like this!
    Despite a pending criminal charge, a controversial supplement designer continues to put new products on the market. Craze v2 marks the return of a brand pulled off the market in 2013.

    A controversial maker of sports supplements, undeterred by a long-pending federal criminal charge, is poised this month to sell a new version of a popular workout powder pulled from the market in 2013 after tests found it contained a methamphetamine-like compound.

    Driven Sports, a New York-based firm run by convicted felon and supplement designer Matt Cahill, plans to begin selling Craze v2 in April in the United States and Europe, according to postings by the company on its Facebook page and Internet promotions by Predator Nutrition, a marketing partner in the United Kingdom.

    Craze v2 will be “a product unlike any supplement ever made,” according to a blog posting by Predator Nutrition. It’s unclear what ingredients will be in the new version of Craze, which marketing materials say will provide users “Coruscating energy and laser-like focus.” Driven Sports, through an attorney, would only say Craze v2 “conforms to all U.S. federal regulatory requirements.

    The impending return of Craze – especially as prosecutors have taken no action in a 2012 case against Cahill for another allegedly drug-spiked supplement – is drawing outrage and concern from some supplement watchdogs and industry officials. They say it highlights the lack of enforcement of consumer protection laws in the $30 billion supplement industry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and prosecutors at the Justice Department – even in one of the highest-profile cases in recent years.

    What we’re seeing here is that this is how the FDA operates: They do nothing,” said Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School whose team published research in October 2013 showing the meth-like compound in Craze – which on its label said its key ingredient came from dendrobium orchid extract. Last October, Cohen and his team published a journal article that showed a different chemical stimulant called DMBA in another Driven Sports product called Frenzy, which the company has marketed overseas for the past year.

    On its label, Frenzy indicates the stimulant comes from “Pouchung Tea.” Cohen and his team said DMBA is a close chemical cousin to DMAA, a stimulant the FDA has said is illegal in supplements because there is no evidence it’s natural and because of risks of heart attacks, seizures and neurological conditions.

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  • 24
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    alan4discussion #23

    I take it you are referring to examples like this!

    Yes, well this is an extreme example but there are others cited in the documentary not quite as worrisome from a public health point of view but still outrageous because they constitute a particularly insidious form of scamming. I’m talking about natural supplements sold at premium prices that actually contain none or almost none of the claimed ingredients.

    For example, well known brands of echinacea or saw palmetto pills sold by well known natural supplement outlets which turn out to contain none. Fish oil that is too old to contain any significant amount of Omega3’s and so on and so forth. Supplement companies make a killing selling these products and no regulatory body keeps them in check.

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  • @nearlynakedape @alan4discussion

    Very valid points as I also noted in my first post – “That the supplement industry could use some cleaning up I don’t dispute. That supplements are worthless or a complete waste of money is a narrow minded view at best”.

    In the States we have an independent testing lab called They buy supplements the same way consumers do (retail, online) and have them tested in independent labs, publishing their results for the public (basically like Consumer Reports for supplements). I have not read of any conflicts of interest with Consumerlab, aside from one described in their wiki, which was thrown out. They provide a needed service in the absence of any other kind of regulation.

    Here’s an interesting post regarding Consumerlab:

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