Are Supplements Worth It?

The pandemic has put our health under the microscope like never before, with many of us reaching for dietary supplements in the hope of fending off the COVID-19 virus.

A recent survey in the US found nearly 30 per cent of Americans are now taking more supplements than they were before the pandemic, while in Australia market researchers report sales of vitamins and supplements have soared.

Are supplements perfectly safe or could we be risking our health further every time we pop a pill?

What are dietary supplements?

Natural health products such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes and plant extracts all fall under the umbrella term of dietary supplements. They are also known as complementary medicines. Global supplement use is growing at a fast rate and expected to reach a value of almost US$300 billion by 2027.

Many dietary supplements are beneficial if used safely, says Geraldine Moses, Adjunct Associate Professor of the School of Pharmacy at the University of Queensland. Women who are pregnant or planning to be are prescribed folic acid and iodine, and deficiencies in certain minerals, such as iron, are corrected with supplements.

What is the evidence?

Some of us take a multivitamin as a kind of health insurance, in case our diet is lacking. Yet the highest-quality evidence, randomised controlled trials, has found no evidence that multivitamins improve your health.

The trials that have been done of vitamins have not shown benefit in people who are not deficient. We are just seeing it time and time again, Professor Rachel Neale of the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.

One reason dietary supplements are so popular is the perception that they are harmless, says Professor Moses. But like any other drug, there are potential dangers from taking vitamins and minerals. Unlike other drugs, however, we rarely hear of their potential harms.