A Vitamin a Day…Doesn’t Keep the Doctor Away?
For better or (more likely) for worse, I tend to have an “all or nothing” type of personality. As of late, my health is my focus. With this in mind, I’ve mixed up my gym routine because my goal is to tackle a triathlon this year. I’ve been eating more healthy and have even started taking some fancy-schmancy vitamin supplements that will help keep me energized & healthy. You could say I’m on a roll.
Form Follows Function
Because I research just about everything I buy (yes, everything: even pens), choosing a multivitamin took some work. I first figured out which vitamins & minerals I “need”. Of course, I wanted all of the major players, plus some B12 for energy and biotin for skin & hair and the more calcium, the better. Next, I needed to sift through the kinds of different vehicles by which to get these. There’s your standard pill (boring but easy), powders & liquids (those sound complicated), injections (ouch!) and vitamin gummies. Though gummies were once sold just for kids, it seems as though marketers have realized that adults like candy, too.
And while I do like candy, given my gung-ho attitude I decided to go with your boring old vitamin pill. If it’s not as fun, it has to work better – right? Essential vitamins & minerals, here I come!
Adam Ruins Everything
Literally hours after I made my (not inexpensive) purchase, I stumbled upon a show called Adam Ruins Everything. In this show, comedian Adam Conover spends each episode debunking widely held beliefs about a singular topic. Its edu-taining tone piqued my interest as it supplied all kinds of data-backed tidbits that effectively “ruin” topics we take for granted. By the third episode, which happened to be all about nutrition, I was hooked.
Given my newfound healthfulness, I hit play thinking I wasn’t going to learn anything new. But within two minutes, there stood Adam (who up until then I thought I liked) telling me my whole life was a lie.
Vitamin L for LIES
Okay, maybe not my whole life was a lie. But apparently, my vitamin supplements are. To paraphrase, vitamins are literally, by definition, things that we need “in minute quantities”, and are present “in natural foodstuffs of somethings produced in the body”. Which means that:
- We only need a minimal amount, and
- The nutrients are already in our food & our bodies
So why, then, did I just spend over an hour picking out a little pill that has 3333% of my daily value of vitamin B12?
For this I can largely thank Linus Pauling. Pauling was a genius-level chemist who is commonly considered a founder of both quantum chemistry & molecular biology. He won two Nobel Prizes for his work, and became a household name. And because he certainly had the credentials, people listened when, in later years, he began touting the benefits of taking dietary supplements & megavitamin therapy as a means to beat disease. You know how you’re supposed to take vitamin C (or guzzle orange juice) to beat a cold? That’s all Pauling. He also believed that megadoses of vitamin C would decrease deaths from cancer.
The problem is there’s absolutely no scientific evidence to back any of this up. Not only did Pauling himself die from cancer in 1994, but studies have shown that vitamin C is no better than a placebo at curing cancer, or even a cold. And to take that a step further, large-scale studies have since proved that taking multivitamins have no impact on outcomes such as cancer and heart disease. And overdoing it on some vitamins – such as A, D or E – can even make you sick!
We’ll Buy the Lie
Yet, somehow, this one man’s insistence has spawned a big business: according to Mintel, US consumers spent $27.6 billion on vitamins, minerals & other supplements in 2015. How is this?
Well, for one, we can look to the media. It’s not exactly new news that the media takes a health-centric story and runs with it – without paying too much mind to the facts behind it. And pushing this news through to their audiences without asking the right questions, consumers are left susceptible to buying in. Even in the last few years, there are all kinds of examples of health “findings” that have spurred widespread trends:
- Food free of GMOs – even though there is no conclusive evidence that GMOs are harmful.
- Gluten-free foods – although for most of the population, gluten is a-okay
- “Organic” & “natural” foods – which are terms that sound great in theory, but are not effectively regulated in practice.
- “Detox cleanses” – which usually equate to little more than starvation diets.
And while we’re fighting the good fight in trying to be as healthy as possible, the truth is that paying too much attention to trends can blow our budgets while not making us any healthier.
When it comes down to it, there’s always going to be money to make from these types of trends because we as humans put so much stock into being healthy. And, like me, there’s many all-or-nothing type of people that feel like they need to go full-force. Ipsos Marketing continually looks at success factors such as relevance, expensiveness, and differentiation when assessing the viability of an innovation – and in terms of pure consumer draw, it’s not surprising that many people buy into health-focused products such as vitamin supplements: if a product is unique and offers a relevant benefit, we’re willing to shell out for it.
What the science tells us, however, is that it is left up to consumers to decide whether they are truly experiencing a benefit from these health-focused products, as for many there just isn’t the research to back them up. But while the data may not necessarily build a case for vitamins or against GMOs, there’s something to be said for the good old placebo effect: a perceived benefit is a benefit indeed! So, as long as these products make us feel healthier (even if just in our heads!), aren’t they doing their job?
While I’m not going to start seeking out GMOs, there’s something a little freeing about realizing that our collective journey to health doesn’t always need to be all-or-nothing. Most reputable doctors will tell us, “everything in moderation”. And I’ve made the decision that this can also include GMOs and vitamins, if only for my mental well-being!
So, don’t get me wrong – I plan to keep up with my healthy lifestyle. And hey, I’ll even finish up the vitamins I have. But when I run out, I won’t run out to re-stock them. Sorry, Pauling!