IN WRITING ABOUT health and nutrition over the past decade or so, I’ve become increasingly convinced that most vitamin supplements are either useless or worse than useless. This is, of course, a vigorous ongoing debate, and I’m not pretending that it’s settled. Epidemiological evidence aside, I think there’s a strong case to be made for the “licensing effect” – the idea that taking a pill that you think makes you healthier will subtly encourage you to make less healthy decisions in other areas of your life. You take a multivitamin, so you don’t feel quite as much urgency about packing an apple and some carrots in your lunch.
So it’s no surprise that a recent study about “vitamin drinks” caught my attention. A team of researchers at the University of Toronto, led by Valerie Tarasuk, analyzed the nutritional content and claims of 46 “nutrient-enhanced drinks” available in Toronto supermarkets, publishing the results in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism (full text here). The findings were pretty eyebrow-raising:
The median number of added nutrients per product was 4.5, and almost every beverage contained at least one nutrient in excess of the daily requirements of young adults.
“It was nothing to find something with two, three, four, in some cases even 12 times the average requirement for an adult male,” Tarasuk says. “It makes no sense that you would pick up one bottle of something and it would give you that much B6.”[…]
In Tarasuk’s study, the most commonly added nutrients were vitamins B6, B12, C and niacin. According to Health Canada statistics, virtually no Canadians are deficient in B6, B12 or niacin, while just 13.7 per cent of Canadians could use more vitamin C.
So there’s very little reason to think these extra vitamins could be helpful. Whether they’re harmful, as I noted above, is debatable. But what’s clear is that jamming a bunch of vitamins into a bottle of sugar-water doesn’t make it healthy, but sure tries to convince consumers that it is. One my favorite nuggets from researching this topic is that there’s an ongoing class-action suit against Vitaminwater (which is owned by Coke and contains eight teaspoons of sugar per 591-mL bottle) for misleading health claims. The defense argued by Coke’s lawyers at one point during the process? “[N]o consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage.” I wonder why they don’t put that on the bottle.