Science and Journalism in Society

Brandeis University JOUR 130B

Vitamin Supplements: The Ongoing Debate Between the Yaba-daba Doers and Disbelievers

Despite the hundreds of miles separating us, her voice rang with such clarity in my head that she may as well have been in the same room as me.

“You sound like you’re getting a cold, Madeline.  Take some extra Vitamin C’s and drink plenty of fluids.”

And as I have for the last two decades, I took the extra vitamins–not the awesome Flinstone ones of cushy elementary school days past, but the chewable ones labeled “Adult.”  This isn’t because it’s corroborated medical advice, or because I’m afraid to lie to my mom (if you’re reading this, mom, I would never lie to you).  It’s an engrained behavioral response—I have always followed a daily supplement routine and up the dosage at the tickle of a sore throat or onset of a stuffy nose.

Recently, however, vitamin supplements have been accruing more rants than raves from the scientific community.  The latest medical findings are challenging the alleged immunity boost previously believed to be acquired from taking dietary supplements.

The immune system is comprised of two components, the innate and the acquired response.  The innate response identifies that there is an intrusion, and the acquired response eliminates the foreign bodies.  Charles Bangham, a professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Imperial College London, says that there is no place for vitamins in this equation.  The only way to speed up the process and boost immunity is through vaccination; otherwise, what manufacturers are doing “is implying that if someone on a normal diet takes [vitamins] they will improve immune function, which is plain wrong.”

Tim Ballard, vice-chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, cites “methodological weaknesses” and the inimitable quality of findings in studies that demonstrate the benefit of vitamins.  He says there isn’t much one can do to combat disease “other than a healthy diet and regular light exercise.”

But medical professionals’ opposition to vitamin supplements have yet to influence consumers. In 2014, consumers spent $14.3 billion on all vitamin- and mineral-containing supplements, $5.7 billion of which went into the multivitamin/mineral supplement sector.  According to the National Institutes of Health, more than one-third of all Americans take my mom’s advice.

Is this a problem of miscommunication between the medical realm and the public?  Or is it simply that old habits die hard?  Are advertising companies really good at what they do, or will there always be a cohort that will take their mothers’ advice over the cold embrace of statistics and scientific findings?  Whether you’re a superstitious supplement user or a vitamin virgin, there are still two persistent sides to the debate.



1 Comment

  1. Nicely written! Is it possible that manufacturers of vitamin supplements are just playing on a modern superstition? Sometimes, when I’m taking them, I think “well, it couldn’t hurt….”

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