The Multivitamin Lie: Why Are There Vitamin Powders in My Food?
The use of multivitamins increased tremendously in the 2000s and they’re considered the most commonly used supplement in the world. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21592424).
At the most basic level, the purpose of a multivitamin is to provide our bodies with the essential vitamins and minerals we don’t get from our diet. For example, maybe we don’t eat enough cruciferous vegetables, so we’re lacking Vitamin K, or perhaps we did not eat any sour fruits, so we’re short on Vitamin C.
The multivitamin provides both Vitamin K and Vitamin C so we think our bases are covered. Instead of eating Kale, we’re getting our Vitamin K from the vitamin, same idea for Vitamin C, etc. However, a problem arises: why do studies not find the same health benefits between consuming multivitamins compared to following a diet of food rich in essential vitamins and minerals?
See for yourself:
- “An analysis of research involving 450,000 people, which found that multivitamins did not reduce risk for heart disease or cancer” (https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/is-there-really-any-benefit-to-multivitamins).
- “[M]ultivitamin use has little or no influence on the risk of common cancers, cardiovascular disease or total mortality in postmenopausal women.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3868488/)
- “A meta-analysis of cohort studies following 469,551 participants found that a higher intake of fruits and vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease” (https://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g4490.full.pdf+html).
- “[W]omen who ate more than 5.5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day (especially cruciferous and yellow/orange vegetables) had an 11% lower risk of breast cancer than those who ate 2.5 or fewer servings” (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ijc.31653).
Certain vitamins are essential to the human body’s function. Because our diet does not contain enough essential vitamins, the multivitamin’s purpose is to supplement our diet with essential vitamins and minerals.
However, there are at least 27 essential vitamins and minerals. 27 sounds like a lot right?
How are we supposed to keep track of our daily diet to know that we’re receiving 27 essential vitamins and minerals? It’s a tough task and it is one of the reasons for the multivitamin’s surge in popularity.
However, as discussed above, multivitamins and supplements generally aren’t as beneficial as we think they are. Dr. JoAnn Manson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, states "[s]upplements are never a substitute for a balanced, healthful diet."
Dr. Manson adds that these supplements "can be a distraction from healthy lifestyle practices that confer much greater benefits."
This is because nutrients are “most potent when they come from food” (https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/should-you-get-your-nutrients-from-food-or-from-supplements).
Real food not only contains essential vitamins and minerals, but real food is also packed with nonessential, beneficial nutrients: hundreds of flavonoids, carotenoids, antioxidants, and minerals not present in multivitamins (https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/should-you-get-your-nutrients-from-food-or-from-supplements).
The short: we should get our essential vitamins and minerals from actual food.
Yet today we see even our foods are supplemented with multivitamins. In fact, a large number of our foods today contain multivitamins, a practice called Fortification.
Fortification is the addition of multivitamin powders into the common foods we eat to increase our consumption of essential vitamins and minerals. You can think of this process as pulverizing a multivitamin and placing it into common foods we eat such as meal replacements, flours, salt, cereal, milk, etc.
So why do we fortify? The answer is simple, fortification is cheap and food producers view it as a shortcut to not include actual fruits and vegetables. We fortify our foods because of the poor nutrition of foods in our diet. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3174857, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/should-you-get-your-nutrients-from-food-or-from-supplements).
However, we’re in the middle of a food revolution. Our relationship with food is changing. We want to eat healthier and live longer lives. Yet at the same time, even many ‘healthy’, new foods of today use fortification to provide their vitamins and minerals.
What does this mean? Fortifying means that these new foods on their own, from the actual food used to make them, do not provide enough of the essential vitamins and minerals that the body needs.
The use of fortification inherently means that we aren’t receiving our essential vitamins from the actual food in our diet alone.
The short: we do not get certain vitamins from our current diets so we instead add multivitamins to the foods we already eat.
The fortification approach distracts us from healthy lifestyle practices that result in greater benefits. If we practiced a healthy diet filled with nutrient-rich foods, fruits, and vegetables, we wouldn’t need to fortify our food.
So, is there a difference between fortifying a nutrient-lacking food and taking a multivitamin? Both of these acts imply that we aren’t receiving our essential vitamins from our diet but are instead relying on vitamin powders to fill our diet’s nutritional deficits.
The difference between fortification and supplements brings up an interesting case where companies today use fortification to call their products nutritionally complete.
For instance, take a look at current powdered food products. They advertise as a single product that, when consumed throughout the day, provides 100% of the essential nutrients the body needs. However, looking at the back label clearly demonstrates these products are fortified to provide the vitamins and minerals they contain.
So then, is there a difference between consuming completely fortified powdered food products and taking a multivitamin to supplement a poor diet?
For example, to provide Calcium you’ll see Tricalcium Phosphate, Potassium Iodide for Iodine, etc. But what happened to actual food providing these essential vitamins and minerals?
This is no different than the vitamins and minerals you see on the back of your multivitamin. Go ahead, take a look.
The short: powdered food products use a multivitamin powder to supplement instead of providing vitamins and minerals from actual foods rich in these nutrients.
So next time you look at a product label, ask yourself if those vitamins and minerals came from (1) the actual food, or from (2) multivitamin powders.