TIME magazine’s senior writer John Cloud recently pondered the question of nutraceutical dietary supplements in this way:
“Vitamins, probiotics, omega-3 capsules, antioxidant pills: they can’t hurt, right? Around the corner of each advancing birthday lurks a possible affliction – arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s – and a giant industry has emerged to try to prevent them all.
“North Americans now spend an estimated $28 billion a year on dietary supplements – more than twice what we spent in 1995 and more than $5 billion more than what we pay each year for gym memberships. But do supplements actually work?”
Here’s what happened to John: ,
He had a panel of blood tests done before and after a five-month experiment with dietary supplements recommended for him by USANA, the Utah-based multilevel marketing company (in which distributors recruit and profit from other distributors).
In John’s personal experiment, he consumed 22 different pills a day, along with health shakes, protein bars and psyllium fibre supplements. His conclusion: these nutraceutical supplements made no difference to his overall health.
Only two of his clinical measurements changed significantly:
- his vitamin D level went up (which he could have raised much more cheaply with a generic vitamin D tablet, and which he further attributed to the weather (his before tests were done in January, the after in sunny June when he spent more time outdoors). Institute of Medicine guidelines based on over 1,000 published scientific studies now recommend that most North Americans up to age 70 need no more than 600 international units (IUs) of vitamin D per day to maintain health (800 IUs for those 71 and older).
- his HDL (good) cholesterol level went up (which was unexplained by the supplements)
He reported that he felt better while taking the supplements for five months, but he attributed that to the placebo effect.
But he had one unfortunate side effect: he gained 10 pounds over the first two months, which he chalked up to what psychologists call the licensing effect:
“You allow yourself to do something bad (like eating more cheeseburgers, fries, and onion rings) after you’ve done something good for yourself!”
An August 2011 study published in the journal Addiction shows that the same licensing effect can happen with smokers: those who took pills they believed were vitamins – actually just sugar pills – smoked significantly more cigarettes afterward than those in a control group.
John Cloud wrote that he felt virtuous. He knew he was getting his nutrition in the pills, so he felt licensed to eat a less healthy diet with more calories. He managed to lose the weight, but it took him three months. (USANA officials reminded him at the time that their daily nutraceutical supplements should be accompanied by physical exercise, eating healthy foods, drinking lots of water and getting enough sleep). Which begs the question, of course:
If you did those four things every day, wouldn’t you’d be healthier anyway without having to take any pills?
In his subsequent TIME article, “Nutrition In a Pill“, he discusses the history of vitamins and the inconclusive science behind supplement recommendations. He provides insight into the way nutraceuticals are marketed. He interviews skeptical scientists including one who calls the vitamin business “the damnedest racket ever perpetrated upon the public.”
John Cloud’s own conclusion:
“On nutraceuticals, I had come to believe that health could be a set of tablets to take rather than a series of responsibilities to meet – water instead of soda, an apple instead of chips, real fish instead of a giant fish-oil capsule.
“You can take vitamins on the faith that they will make you better and if you have a real vitamin deficiency, they will.
“But there’s more science behind another way of getting your vitamins: eating right.”
He added that some nutriceuticals might be appropriate for some people with measurable deficiencies in certain vitamins or minerals, but advised against trusting the educational pitch from your local health food store clerk, which may mean walking out of the store with $200 worth of supplements that you may or may not need. This is particularly true if you are already taking prescribed medications (some supplements, for example, should not be consumed by those taking certain heart meds).
His (admittedly small one-person) experiment is not particularly good news for USANA or other commercial sellers of nutraceutical supplements. USANA, by the way, earned $565 million in revenue over the previous 12 months, which actually makes it one of the smaller players in the nutraceutical world, says John Cloud. The world’s largest pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, sold an estimated $463 million in supplements (like its Centrum vitamin) last year in North America alone, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. By comparison, GNC (a brand of dietary supplements you may recognize from your local mall) reported annual revenues of $1.93 billion.
Meanwhile, as the National Business Review reported, USANA’s own company documents show:
- USANA distributors follow a “binary compensation plan,” in which one person recruits two others, those two recruit four others, those four recruit eight others, and so on
- each new USANA distributor must buy a minimum amount of the company’s business tools and health products to get started, and then continue to buy a minimum amount of its health products every month thereafter in order to qualify for commissions
- 87% of commission-earning USANA distributors did not make enough to recoup the cost of their monthly qualifying purchases
- the top 7.7% of USANA’s commission-earning distributors made 72.2% of the company’s commissions
- the company has a “significant turnover” in its distributors every year according to its 2006 SEC filings, and so it “must continually recruit” new distributors.
The bottom line, according to statistician Dr. Murray H. Smith, is that the vast majority of USANA distributors end up paying more to qualify for commissions than they actually make in commissions:
“Most people won’t get their money back.”