Dietary supplements: costly snake oil perpetuated by greed and gullibility

Scienceosaurus.com dietary supplements are usually wasteful snake oil Introduction:

Some conditions require the use of dietary supplements, but they are mostly unnecessary with modern diets.  But this doesn’t stop the supplement industry from making buckets of money.  Dietary supplements raked in $32 billion in profits in 2012 and they’re projected to earn $278.02 billion by 2024.  (This makes the argument that “pharmaceutical companies just want to make money” seem a bit stupid, doesn’t it?)

Most people think this is harmless money making.  But it’s not.  Even disregarding the fact that most of the time supplement purchases are a waste of money, these products still cause harm.

Harm from dietary supplements:

Promotion of credulity:

Because of intense lobbying pressure, the supplement industry is not subject to oversight by the FDA.  This means that dietary supplement manufacturers and suppliers can make pretty much any claim that they want regardless of how ridiculous or unproven.

One tangential consequence of this has been the promotion of an anti-scientific point of view amongst the general population.  If you doubt this, keep in mind the amount of money the dietary supplement industry rakes in while you read through these unsubstantiated claims that are actually made by companies trying to sell supplements:

  • “…vitamin C also helps to cleanse the liver, blood and lymph, strengthen the adrenal glands, and repair damaged neurotransmitters.” (Medical Medium Blog)
  • “To date, not a single virus has been tested that is not inactivated (killed) by a large enough dose of vitamin C (ascorbic acid).” (Natural Health 365)  *Here’s a fun point to illustrate the stupidity of this claim: “vitamin C” in this sentence can be replaced with pretty much anything (e.g. fire).*
  • “Your body can handle natural foods and herbs, the altered from nature meds have toxic side-effects because your body can’t handle them.” And: “Using high-quality, wildcrafted herbal extract of Blood Root, (Sanguinaria Canadensis), Red Root (Amaranthus retroflexus), Dandelion Root, prickly ash, Poke Root and black walnut as well as humic and fulvic acids, Nano-Red is suggested for use in conjunction with specific elixirs to accelerate the elimination of dead and unwanted cells.”  (Cancer Fighting Stratigies)

If you are thinking to yourself, “self, I don’t think that those claims should be made without evidence,” then I agree with you.

These unsubstantiated claims are easier to peddle to a credulous, gullible populace.  So, these companies—along with well-intentioned individuals that have become invested in these products—have become mouthpieces for anti-scientific rhetoric.

Economic harm:

$32 billion dollars made in 2012.  An anticipated profit of $278.02 billion by 2024.  It goes without saying that these are large sums of money.  What should also be obvious is that this money could be better spent.  Here is a list of better things to poor money into and their comparatively smaller budgets:

  • National Science Foundation; budget request for 2012: $7.767 billion (24% of the supplement industry’s profits for the same year)
  • The US Interagency Council on Homelessness; budget proposal for 2013: $4.7 billion (15% of the supplement industry’s profits from the previous year)
  • The International Green Climate Fund; total amount pledged as of 14/07/2017: $10.3 billion (3.7% of the projected profits from the Dietary supplements industry by 2024).

To say the least, this money could be better spent.  Unless you are a fan of expensive, nutrient-rich piss, I’ll assume you agree with me.

Physical harm:

A new study (Rao et al., 2017) documents that poison control centres in the USA receive a call about a dietary-supplement related emergency every 24 minutes.  The study found that “There were 274,998 dietary supplement exposures from 2000 through 2012.”

This is obviously an unacceptable level of harm for a largely unbeneficial product.

Conclusion:

You should take dietary supplements if you have a condition that requires them.  Your doctor (not a blog, internet celebrity, or celebrity-doctor) will tell you if this is necessary.  Otherwise, you should not waste your money on supplements.  If you do, you are unwittingly funding a dangerous industry and contributing to an even more dangerous cultural sentiment of distrust towards science and reason.

Works cited:

Rao, N., Spiller, H. A., Hodges, N. L., Chounthirath, T., Casavant, M. J., Kamboj, A. K., & Smith, G. A. (2017). An Increase in Dietary Supplement Exposures Reported to US Poison Control Centers. Journal of Medical Toxicology, 1-11. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13181-017-0623-7

Jared Peters

Jared Peters

Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.
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Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.