Washington, D.C.— In 2021, U.S. consumers spent close to $50 billion on vitamins and dietary supplements. That’s according to a release from Northwestern University. But, Northwestern Medicine scientists say, there isn’t enough evidence that vitamins help prevent cardiovascular disease or cancer. And because of that, they concluded, vitamins are “a waste of money” for non-pregnant, otherwise healthy Americans.
“Patients ask all the time, ‘What supplements should I be taking?’” said Dr. Jeffrey Linder, Chief of General Internal Medicine in the Department of Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in the release. “They’re wasting money and focus thinking there has to be a magic set of pills that will keep them healthy when we should all be following the evidence-based practices of eating healthy and exercising.”
Northwestern Medicine scientists outlined their case against vitamins in an editorial published in JAMA. They support new recommendations from the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), which makes recommendations about clinical preventive services. USPSTF’s new guidelines deemed there is “insufficient evidence” that taking multivitamins, paired supplements, or single supplements can help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer in otherwise healthy, non-pregnant adults.
Northwestern said USPSTF is specifically recommending against taking beta-carotene supplements. The reason given: a possible increased risk of lung cancer. Also, they recommend against taking vitamin E supplements. They say “it has no net benefit in reducing mortality, cardiovascular disease or cancer.”
Dr. Linder noted: “The harm is that talking with patients about supplements during the very limited time we get to see them, we’re missing out on counseling about how to really reduce cardiovascular risks, like through exercise or smoking cessation.”
Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) issued a statement regarding the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force guidance on multivitamins.
“Numerous research studies support the use of multivitamins by most Americans for a range of benefits,” said Andrea Wong, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, Scientific & Regulatory Affairs. “First, multivitamins fill in significant nutrition gaps in Americans. Government data shows that most Americans fall short in many key nutrients. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration and the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identified that under-consumption of calcium, potassium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D is of public health concern for the general U.S. population because low intakes are associated with numerous health concerns.”
Second, Dr. Wong continued, “the recent Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS) is among the growing evidence that multivitamins help delay cognitive decline in older people.”
Dr. Wong also pointed to the Physicians’ Health Study II, a large-scale, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. It showed an 8% reduction in overall cancer risk in older male physicians who took a multivitamin.
“These are just a few of the many benefits from multivitamins, not to mention the benefits from individual ingredients that are in the multivitamin like B vitamins, vitamin D, etc.,” Dr. Wong said. “The apparent limited evidence should not be misinterpreted as the absence of evidence.”
CHPA Weighs in on Report
Duffy MacKay, ND, Senior VP, Dietary Supplements, Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), offered perspective. “The USPSTF found again what it found in 2014 and in 2021: that there is not yet enough evidence to determine if vitamin and mineral supplements help prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer. However, dietary supplements should not be confused with drugs. Beyond the narrow focus of this review, the broader evidence base for the benefits of dietary supplements is growing rapidly.”
As MacKay noted, the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements reminds consumers and healthcare providers that supplementation can be helpful for people. This includes those over 50, those who could become pregnant, breastfed babies and toddlers. Also, it includes those who avoid certain foods or who have poor diets, and many others. He pointed to the CHPA Educational Foundation as a resource for education on the benefits and safe use of dietary supplements.