Do you really need vitamins and supplements?

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Sales of vitamin supplements in powder and pill form have skyrocketed during the pandemic as people around the world seek ways to boost their immune systems.

“It can’t hurt,” many will say.

Experts say this is wrong.

Vitamin supplements are often advertised as boosting your immune system or strengthening your bones, and sometimes even protecting against Covid-19 or curing cancer.

Market research shows their sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Experts warn, however, that their use is generally not only a waste of money, but also potentially dangerous.

What is the prevalence of their use?

A third of the German population, for example, takes vitamins as dietary supplements at least once a week, according to a representative survey by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).

One in six people take vitamin tablets or powders daily.

And recent data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows that among U.S. adults ages 20 and older, 57.6% have used a dietary supplement in the past 30 days, and that use has been increasing. with age.

The most common dietary supplements used by all age groups were multivitamin-mineral supplements.

Adverse Effects of Overdose

BfR President Andreas Hensel, however, throws cold water on the high hopes of vitamin lovers: “A balanced and varied diet provides your body with sufficient amounts of almost all vitamins”, he says.

“Most people don’t need vitamin supplements. If you take vitamins unnecessarily in high doses, you risk overdosing with adverse health effects.”

An overdose will at best result in your body producing “expensive urine”, quips Wiebke Franz, nutritionist for the consumer advice center of the German state of Hesse.

At worst, you will harm your health.

Dietary supplements, including vitamins, are not subject to quality and safety testing like drugs are, she notes. Therefore, it is not uncommon for vitamin tablets and powders to contain impurities.

And she says it’s important to be aware of possible drug interactions.

Beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, may increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers, warns Franz, and an overdose of vitamin A “is not safe” either.

Too much vitamin D can cause headaches, nausea, and kidney calcifications, and taking excessively high doses of vitamin C for too long can lead to bladder and kidney stones.

Vitamin overdoses sometimes go unnoticed, she says, because people who take the pills and powders also ingest vitamins naturally in their diet, some of which are also vitamin-fortified.

There are no specified safe limits for vitamin intake, which consumer advocates have criticized for years.

“Vitamin deficiencies are not a problem in Germany. The vast majority of people in this country are sufficiently supplied with vitamins,” says the German Nutrition Society (DGE).

Dietary supplements are only recommended for a few segments of the population, such as pregnant women, chemotherapy patients, the extremely elderly, and strict vegans.

Sales of vitamin supplements are booming anyway.

Booming sales

German pharmacies alone sold nearly €2.3 billion (RM10.7 billion) worth of dietary supplements in 2020, more than half of which were vitamins and minerals, according to IQVIA’s German branch , an American market research and pharmaceutical consulting company.

Influencers receive a commission for advertising or reselling products, which is difficult to control. —AFP

Sales of vitamins and minerals represented an increase of 11% compared to 2019.

Immunostimulants saw the strongest growth at 12%, and combinations of vitamins A and D, as well as those including vitamin C, also posted double-digit growth.

“The boom in sales of dietary supplements such as vitamin A and D combinations in 2020, as well as vitamin C, is probably due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Thomas Heil, vice president of the health division. general public of IQVIA Germany.

“Consumers expected their take to offer some protection against infection.”

The experts say they were wrong. “No studies are known that show that taking vitamin D supplements protects either against infection with the new coronavirus or against the onset of symptoms of the disease,” reports the BfR.

And the Robert Koch Institute, responsible for disease control and prevention in Germany, writes: “There is no evidence to date that people with adequate vitamin D status benefit in this respect from taking vitamin D supplements.”

Consumer advisor Franz warns against giving credence to health claims made by vitamin supplement manufacturers and distributors. The products are being touted as miracle drugs, she says, particularly on the internet and through direct marketing.

“Providers deceive consumers by promising health benefits or even cures,” she notes.

Social media marketing is a particularly big issue, says Christiane Seidel, food adviser for the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBV).

Although suppliers are prohibited from making false claims about their products, they often make inadmissible health claims on social media, sometimes even going so far as to say that the products “help against cancer”.

“Vitamins can help the body function normally,” says Seidel. “Dietary supplements do not help treat disease.”

Vitamin supplements are a “super lucrative business,” she notes, adding that direct internet marketing is hard to control.

Illegal advertising is often propagated by influencers who receive a commission for branching or reselling the products.

Many companies are located in other countries, and their websites often give no details about the company and only appear briefly, presenting “a huge problem for law enforcement”.

The trade in vitamin supplements has grown enormously since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the VZBV.

Whether it will decline when the pandemic recedes remains to be seen. The latest data from IQVIA shows that while pharmacy sales of vitamin A and D supplements in Germany continued to increase in 2021 – by almost 17% – sales of pure vitamin C supplements have fallen. – dpa

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