Are supplements safe?

Are supplements safe?

Team ErbologyErbology

Has this happened to you? Gone to someone's home. Seen rows of vitamin and supplement bottles and jars. Firstly thought, I don't have any of those myself. Secondly thought, these people are healthier than I am...?

January 20, 2021 3:31 pm

That might be an example of false logic. Something that makes sense from the outside looking in. However, something that might not actually be true from the inside out. In this article we will examine if the supplements are safe and if you really need them.

It may be a false logic that drives a global market for supplements estimated at USD 123 billion by Grandview Research in 2019.(1) That is a number that is only supposed to rise this year. An American Osteopathic Association survey says 86% of American adults take some type of supplement.(2) Further, many take multiple supplements.

Of course it is true that there are specific elements within food that are especially useful. Some people might be lacking those. It is tempting to think we can fix that quickly. Just go to a store and buy a pill. It’s natural, right? And it means you’ll be healthy, eh? But it’s a bit more complex than that. And also a bit simpler than that.

What are supplements?

First, let’s define what exactly we mean by supplements. In this context, a supplement is any product that is supposed to add nutritional value to your diet or improve your health. Seen in this light, vitamins are just one type of supplement. Of course, that isn’t to say that science shouldn’t successfully support health. However, it’s something to be examined situation by situation. Especially when it comes to diet. Do you think that the supplements you take in pill form make up for eating badly? Think again. Nothing compensates fully for a poor diet. Eat well? Free from specific conditions? We’ll say more on this later. Many health care professionals say you should not need supplements. Recent studies support that. Why?

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1. Aren’t supplements as real as food?

Maybe you think because something can be found in food, it’s natural when it is concentrated into pill or liquid form. But that isn’t true. Do your research if you are considering adding supplements to your diet. Many, if not most, supplements on the market are synthetic. Read: made through a chemical process. Read again: fake. They may have a similar structure to the real thing. However, they are made in a lab and not in a plant or animal’s living body. Moreover, another type of supplement is the crystalline vitamin. Crystalline vitamins are natural foods which have been treated to distill the desired vitamin, which cannot be said to be natural. Its cell structure has altered, becoming – you guessed it – crystalline. The research we cite in this piece looks into synthetic and crystalline supplements.

Most importantly, when your body absorbs any substance through real food, it’s never alone. It has all matter of sidekicks. These might include fiber, protein, fats, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. Also enzymes, complex micronutrients. Also trace minerals! And that’s only the ones we know about! There are many others that have not yet been identified by humans. The exact mix and balance depends on the food. But everything works together to help your body process the food and nutrients within. When you take a supplement, the sidekicks aren’t present. That means your body might not be able to respond as openly. That’s why supplements are sometimes called isolated nutrients.

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2. Are supplements nutritious?

Further, supplements work medically, rather than nutritionally. In other words, nutrients absorbed through whole foods build slowly but strongly. They help to form your body itself. Vitamins obtained through supplements do not work entirely the same way. Think about how taking medicine works as opposed to eating fresh, real food. That is the difference between medicine and nutrition. Both have their place, which should not be confused.(3)

3. Aren’t supplements better than nothing?

Are you healthy? You should not need medicine to give you what your food should. Do you feel your diet may not provide all the nutrients you need? You may think that supplements are better than letting things lie as they are. But this might not be true.

Let’s look at a concrete example. Vitamin E is in foods such as spinach, avocado, and almonds. It is a powerful antioxidant. Studies suggest that when you get Vitamin E in natural form, your body can take it in twice as well as if you get it in synthetic form. That’s a strong figure.(4) The specifics vary from vitamin to vitamin and substance to substance. However, this is an example of how your supplement may not work the way you think it does. Aside from other things, it encourages you not to look hard enough at your diet. You end up not getting adequate nutrition from either your diet or the supplement, the supposed bandage solution.

Further, the opposite is also true. That is, you are more likely to overload your body through supplements. Because nutrients are processed differently when taken in real food form, it is very difficult to consume too many through your food. However, synthetic vitamins and fortified foods can be toxic if taken in excess. This is called hypervitaminosis. It can lead to illness.(5) This is especially important because many of us think taking more vitamins does us more good. More ain’t always better, especially when it’s fake. That means that it’s generally wise to depend on nutrients acquired through real foods. It’s hard to get too much of those.


4. Aren’t supplements safe?

Many recent studies suggest that even beyond the things discussed above, synthetic supplements are not safe and may actually do us harm. In other words, what we thought was a shortcut to good health might lead us to an entirely different place altogether.

There are so many types of supplements. It is best to go one by one as we substantiate some of these doubts.


Multivitamins are the most popular supplement by far. They are seen as a one-stop solution to getting everything you need. However, recent studies have suggested that multivitamins might not help support heart health. Many people think they do. But the Physicians’ Health Study II monitored daily use of multivitamins in 14,000 middle-aged men over a span of 10 years. No improvement of heart health or mortality was observed, and the rate of strokes was unchanged.(6) Further, other studies have linked multivitamin use to an increased risk of cancer.(7)

Single and paired vitamins

An evidence review for the US Preventive Services Task Force looked into the ability of single and paired vitamins to help heart disease. It found a lack of benefit. The authors say that the conclusion is likely to be reliable. However, it cannot be said that it is completely conclusive. Still, it is quite telling.(8) Another study did not indicate that single and paired vitamins boost brain health.(9) That is to say, a systematic review of 14 trials looking at vitamin B6, B12, and folic acid was carried out and found no significant improvement in cognitive function in people of normal or impaired brain health was found.

Antioxidants and minerals

A large body of studies suggest that supplementing with antioxidants may heighten chances of some types of cancer.(10) A review was done of 27 clinical trials. Just 7 reported some benefit for heart health or reduction of incidence or mortality of cancer from taking antioxidants. 10 studies found no benefit at all. A remaining 10 found that people taking antioxidant supplements were left worse off. That is to say, with higher rates of lung and breast cancer incidence, among other diseases.

A study looking at vitamin and mineral supplement use and incidence of upper gastrointestinal cancers in a large sample of more than 490,000 individuals also had disturbing results where minerals are concerned. It found that use of iron and zinc supplements resulted in higher rates of gastric noncardia adenocarcinoma incidence. The same study did find lower incidences of other types of cancer in other instances of vitamin and mineral supplement use.(11) However, that is a game of Russian Roulette. While synthetic supplements may not be safe, whole foods are never a high-risk game.

Further, a recent study suggests that taking calcium supplements could double the risk of death by cancer. Dr. Fang Fang Zhang of Tufts University comments, “Our results support the idea that, while supplement use contributes to an increased level of total nutrient intake, there are beneficial associations with nutrients from foods that aren’t seen with supplements.”(2)

To sum up, a number of notable experts say more evidence is needed to determine the benefits and possible harm of synthetic supplements. No experts think there is more evidence needed as to the real benefits or harm of whole foods.

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"We know too little to suggest there is a greater need in the elderly for most of these vitamins and minerals. A supplement does not cure the ageing process." Dr. Donald McCormick, Ph.D

5. Aren’t supplements good for some people?

There are people who are unable to get all the nutrients they need through diet. These may include those with specific medical conditions or nutritional deficiencies. Some pregnant women also need extra nutrients. Further, some elderly people may have difficulty getting everything they need through diet. For those people, some type of supplement may be appropriate. However, look at research and take evidence-based advice. Remember that the specifics of each person’s situation is different. Don’t take for granted that supplements are safe and necessary. Recall the statistic that 86% of American adults take supplements? Well, only 21% had a confirmed nutritional deficiency.

Dr. Donald McCormick, Ph.D , Professor Emeritus of biochemistry at Emory and the head of the graduate program of nutrition and health sciences there says, “We know too little to suggest there is a greater need in the elderly for most of these vitamins and minerals. A supplement does not cure the ageing process.”(12) Vegans and vegetarians may think they need supplements to replace nutrients found in animal-derived foods.

Don’t forget that there is also the sheer cost of supplements. Many are expensive. Certainly much more expensive than a good diet based on whole foods.

Convinced that you are missing some nutrients? Document your diet for a week alongside any symptoms you may have. Do your research. Erbology Editorial provides a wealth of free, balanced, evidence-based articles presenting different types of nutritional deficiencies. Further, how to correct them through diet. Of course, seek enlightened medical advice if you are ill.


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6. Are supplements all the same?

Do you really need to take supplements? Look for organic plant-based whole foods and medicinal plants high in nutrients instead. These include nuts and seeds, cold-pressed oils, dehydrated berries and root vegetables, undiluted and unsweetened berry juices, activated snacks and more. Take Jerusalem artichoke as an example. This root veggie is a source of prebiotic fiber called inulin. Dehydrated and pulverized Jerusalem artichoke tubers are naturally more concentrated in inulin than fresh Jerusalem artichoke tubers. Yet, raw Jerusalem artichoke powder remains a whole food, as opposed to chemically processed inulin capsules.

Unclear whether the supplement you are considering is synthetic, crystalline or whole food? Look at the label. Is your supplement a whole food? It should have food sources. Or, it will say 100% plant-based. Does it list chemical names or specific vitamins on the label? Then it is probably synthetic. Are your supplements safe then?

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7. Are supplements… for me?

We say in the beginning that the question of whether to take supplements is more complex than you think, but that it is also simpler. Here’s what we mean. Amidst complex studies, names, and facts, real, natural, and simple is best. Do you eat a rainbow of real foods and drink a river of water? Do you look after your gut health? Sleep well? Exercise? You probably will not need a supplement. Never you mind about those rows of important-looking bottles seen in anyone’s home. That’s just packaging and marketing. You – and your wallet – will probably be healthier and truer from the inside out.

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  • References

    (1) Grandview Research study, “Dietary Supplements Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report by Ingredient (Vitamins, Minerals), By Form, By Application, By End User, By Distribution Channel, By Region, and Segment Forecasts, 2020 – 2027″, 2020.

    (2) American Osteopathic Association, “Poll finds 86% of Americans take vitamins or supplements yet only 21% have a confirmed nutritional deficiency”, 2019.

    (3) Chukwuka, Azubulke Victor, National Environmental Standards Research Agency, Nigeria, “Is there a difference between “natural” and “synthetic” vitamins when it comes to safety and efficiency?” 2013.

    (4) Burton et al, “Human plasma and tissue alpha-tocopherol concentrations in response to supplementation with deuterated natural and synthetic vitamin E.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1998.

    5) Chen et al, “Association Among Dietary Supplement Use, Nutrient Intake, and Mortality Among U.S. Adults: A Cohort Study”, Annals of Internal Medicine, 2019.

    (6) Sesso et al, “Multivitamins in the prevention of cardiovascular disease in men: the Physicians’ Health Study II randomized controlled trial.” JAMA, 2012.

    (7) Mursu et al, “Dietary supplements and mortality rate in older women: the Iowa Women’s Health Study.” Archives of Internal Medicine, 2011.

    (8) Fortmann et al, “Vitamin and mineral supplements in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer: an updated systematic evidence review for the US Preventive Services Task Force” DARE, 2013.

    (9) Balk et al, “Vitamin B6, B12, and folic acid supplementation and cognitive function: a systematic review of randomized trials.” Archives of Internal Medicine, January 2007.

    (10) Villanueva, Cleva and Kross, Robert, “Antioxidant-Induced Stress”, International Journal of Molecular Science, 2012.

    Photo credits: Markus Spiske, Erol Ehmed, Gabriel Gurrola, Irene Kredenets, Adam Niescioruk

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