Vitamin pills and nutritional supplements

20. October 2020

How healthy are they really?

If you eat healthily, you don’t need to take vitamin pills or additional nutritional supplements. The body gets all the vitamins and minerals it needs from a balanced diet.

Pills and capsules cannot compensate for a bad diet and an unhealthy lifestyle. “Anyone who takes nutritional supplements without being advised to by a medical expert is carrying out a large-scale experiment on their own body”, says Professor Wilhelm Bloch from the Sports University in Cologne. So if you have enough fruit, vegetables and salad on your plate and you’re healthy, you don’t need additional vitamin pills. Grain, meat, fish and milk also provide us with vital substances.

Only people who actually suffer from nutritional deficiencies should rely on artificial supplements. According to a report by the Robert Koch Institute, the vitamin content in normal food is sufficient to meet the needs of the German population. Additional minerals or vitamins only constitute a sensible addition to your diet in special life situations or for certain risk groups, emphasises the institute.

Nutritional supplements have become a lifestyle product

As of 2018, almost 225 million packs of nutritional supplements were being sold in Germany each year. 30 percent of the population takes vitamin or mineral supplements almost every day. A billion-dollar market – according to statistics, sales of nutritional supplements generated 1.4 billion euros in 2018.

Today the amount is probably much higher. According to the Federation for Food Law and Food Science (Bund für Lebensmittelrecht und Lebensmittelkunde e. V., BLL), the most popular supplements are vitamin C, multivitamins (with or without minerals) and vitamin B combinations.  In terms of minerals, magnesium is by far the most popular, followed by calcium, potassium and zinc.

Vitamin supplements generated 400 million euros in sales. Just 19 manufacturers account for 50.4 percent of sales. The total turnover in the health market in 2016 was almost 50 billion euros.

Stiftung Warentest has warned several times against vitamin pills

The packaging makes many promises: vitamin C will boost your immune system, vitamin A will help your eyes, multivitamin juices with vitamins A, C and E will protect you from cancer. People who take them want to support their bodies, prevent disease or avoid deficiencies.

Under certain circumstances, however, vitamin supplements can actually cause harm – according to the result of a current study by Stiftung Warentest. Vitamin deficiencies are dangerous, but so is overdosing.

The examiners bought 35 supplements in retail stores or online and examined how much of the respective vitamin was in each individual sample. The result? According to the information on the packaging, 26 samples exceeded the daily maximum dose recommended by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung, BfR). Ten samples even contained a “drastically high dose”, according to Warentest. Yet millions of people take them every day. “In the case of several vitamins, an overdose can have side effects or make you ill,” said the examiners. This applies in particular to the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, as they can accumulate in the body.

The online portal also warns clearly: “Antioxidants and multivitamins do not reduce the likelihood of dying prematurely from cancer, cardiovascular diseases or other causes. Taking beta-carotene and possibly also vitamin E supplements can even increase the likelihood of premature death.”

Taking multivitamin products seems to have no effect on the risk of cancer or cardiovascular diseases, nor on mortality, the “Spiegel” reported years ago.

The NDR warned against vitamin D, for example: “The body defends itself against overdosing through vomiting, diarrhoea and headaches. Anyone who takes too much vitamin D over a long period of time can expect calcium deposits to build up in their blood vessels, as well as kidney damage and other organ damage. The risk of pancreatic cancer may also increase.”

Natural sources of vitamins

The fat-soluble vitamins A, D and beta-carotene can cause major problems in the event of an overdose.  They accumulate in the body and can even lead to premature death in the event of long-term overdose. People also often overdose on minerals such as iron, which can also be harmful to health.

The best sources of beta-carotene are kale, deep yellow to orange fruits, and vegetables. Beta-carotene has antioxidant properties, but if you take too much of it in the form of nutritional supplements, your health is at risk. An overdose of vitamin A can quickly lead to cardiovascular problems, and too much calcium can lead to constipation.

You are better off getting the vitamin A you need by eating spinach, red peppers, tomatoes, broccoli and apricots. It is also not necessary to take magnesium as a nutritional supplement. Magnesium is found in oats, pumpkin seeds, green leafy vegetables, nuts, legumes, dried fruits and cocoa.

You should only take magnesium supplements if your regularly suffer from muscle and calf cramps. But be careful: a sharp increase in magnesium levels in the body can lead to complaints of the nervous system and heart.

Long-term, high-dose intake of certain vitamin B supplements increases the risk of lung cancer in men. Contrary to what is sometimes assumed, vitamin B supplements do not protect against lung cancer, but can even be harmful, writes the team led by Theodore Brasky from Ohio State University.

The B vitamins are a group of eight vitamins, all of which serve as precursors for coenzymes. Vitamins B3, B6 and B12 can be found in foods such as meat, liver, fish and wholegrain products, in nuts, vegetables, potatoes and carrots, legumes, eggs and dairy products.

An overdose of zinc can lead to symptoms of poisoning, as zinc is a heavy metal. Too much of it can do more harm than good. Our body needs zinc, of course, but it is found in sufficient quantities in germinated grains, sunflower seeds, nuts, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, parsley, chives, radishes, kohlrabi, celery, asparagus, pumpkin, raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb.

The best-selling and most frequently consumed vitamin is still vitamin C. The same applies here: too much vitamin C is more likely to cause harm than do good. Too much vitamin C leads to stomach and digestive problems. The recommended daily vitamin C intake is 110 mg for men and 95 mg for women. The recommended amount for pregnant women is 105 mg, and for breastfeeding women 125 mg per day. These values take into account metabolic losses and safety margins, writes the consumer advice centre. You are better to avoid high-dose vitamin C supplements.

There are plenty of foods, including locally grown foods, that are rich in vitamin C. Red peppers contain the most vitamin C at 140 mg per 100 g, and many types of cabbage, spinach and horseradish also have high levels of vitamin C. Broccoli, sea buckthorn and rose hips even outstrip imported classics like oranges and lemons.

In the case of all vitamin pills it is important to note that only a prudent dosage protects against damage, and not all risks have yet been researched. Experts also warn against multivitamin juices fortified with artificial vitamins.

If you don’t want to renounce nutritional supplements entirely, you should buy them from a pharmacy if possible. At least this way, you can get advice from the pharmacist. Avoid ordering vitamin products on the Internet – some of the products on offer are not what they seem. Do not take vitamins prophylactically or to protect against illness, but only after consulting with your doctor and receiving the appropriate diagnosis.