The industry of hope
Supplements — an industry that sells hope.
I used to be a supplements guy. I liked to buy supplements with the belief that buying supplements could help and improve my health. I don’t think I am alone on this — the supplement market is a $123.28 billion industry (according to google) and growing. It has expanded in product range beyond what we could otherwise imagine. I see mushrooms being sold, nootropics, and now vitamins are being administered sublingually. The industry is developing, in line with the $$$.
So, what are supplements?
Supplements are used to replace what you get from a diet. The most common supplements that we come across include vitamin B, C, iron, vitamin D and fish oil. Personally, I remember taking vitamin C (to boost my immune system), fish oil and gingko biloba (which supposedly supports memory and brain function) quite regularly when I was younger. If you talk to your friends, I would suspect a fair few of them would have taken supplements at some time in their lives.
What is wrong with supplements?
It is not a blanket statement I am giving when I am saying I am against supplements. It is more an attempt to bring out an issue. I think supplements give false hope to consumers and money to producers. Supplements are not necessary for most situations (except for those with deficiencies that are not avoidable), and the solution to a problem may instead be simple. It may just be taking breaks from eating all that junk food and switching to eating a more balanced diet. This advice is one that you hear all the time, and most people know this. The problem is that we don’t like to hear this. We don’t want to have to maintain a “boring” routine with “boring food” day in and day out. We humans are lazy by nature and want to find a solution that requires minimal effort, one that gives instantaneous results. We want a cure-all drug that we can eat and will solve the problem.
What is the science behind supplementation?
The reality is, yes, there may be some correlation between consuming a supplement to solving a problem in certain situations i.e. there seems to be some correlation between vitamin D and reducing the symptoms of covid-19. However, such links are usually weak.
The reality for a lot of supplements on the market is that there is weak scientific backing (e.g. gold standard studies) to show that the supplement will solve a problem. Pharmaceutical companies know this and will get around this by using the right words and images in its marketing e.g. a gingko biloba extract will say it “supports” mental focus and memory and have an image of the brain on the labelling. If you are a consumer with memory problems, you may see and read that as “will improve my memory”. Companies prey on those who are hopeful, and so sell them the hope with fancy labels and carefully worded marketing, so they don’t get sued for making false claims and misleading consumers. The market is “caveat emptor” i.e. buyer beware, so as long as they are on the right side of the law, there is nothing stopping them from marketing their supplements as such.
What if there is correlation between consuming a supplement to solving a problem?
Even if there is correlation in a study linking consumption of a supplement to solving a problem, there are many considerations to think about:
- What is sold in the market may not be the dosage used in those studies.
- There is a difference between what you take and what your body ends up absorbing for e.g. when taking a tablet vs sublingual sprays.
- The supplement itself may require another supplement before it is effective.
- Your body can only take so much of a supplement at a time, so even if you consume high levels of such supplement, your body may end up just disposing of it when you next go to the toilet.
- Overconsuming a supplement can be dangerous.
- The supplement you take may have no effect on you if you already have enough stores of that supplement.
- The supplement may be found in many of the foods that we consume.
What does this all mean?
We need to second-guess our instinct to buy a supplement. The first question you should ask is whether supplementing may actually help you or not and what your reason is for buying a supplement (any studies? who funded the studies?). The second question is whether you can get the supplement from food (unless you struggle with absorption). The third question is asking what dosage is required and for how long in the clinical studies to make sure you are doing it right.
The end message is that we have to be astute as consumers. Remember “Don’t ask the barber whether you need a haircut”.