The Nuance

The Problem With Supplements

The evidence against supplements is stronger than ever, and yet more Americans take them year over year

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
12 min readMay 6, 2019

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Illustrations by Na Kim

Earlier this year, federal authorities announced plans to strengthen oversight of the supplement industry.

“The growth in the number of adulterated and misbranded products — including those spiked with drug ingredients not declared on their labels, misleading claims, and other risks — creates new potential dangers,” said U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb in a February press release.

Heightened oversight is needed, Gottlieb argued, because expansion and change within the supplement industry has made it difficult for his agency to keep pace. “What was once a $4 billion industry comprised of about 4,000 unique products, is now an industry worth more than $40 billion, with more than 50,000 — and possibly as many as 80,000 or even more — different products available to consumers,” he said.

From multivitamins and botanicals to probiotics and protein powders, roughly three out of four Americans now take some kind of supplement on a regular basis. Since the days of palliative tonics and snake-oil salesmen, Americans have been readily lured by the promise of health or longevity in the form of a drink, pill, or powder. While the terminology has evolved — “biohacking” and “nutraceuticals” are some of the buzzwords du jour — the implied benefits of most supplements still outpace or ignore the science. And despite recent studies that find supplements are frequently contaminated or that the best way to get nutrients is through food, Americans’ interest in supplements is only growing. And experts say many supplement users don’t recognize or appreciate the risks that accompany the use of these products.

“Pill use among every age group is at an all-time high,” says Dr. Mark Moyad, the Jenkins/Pomkempner director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan. “There isn’t a medical condition or symptom you can name that doesn’t have a supplement you can take to treat or prevent it.”

“There’s a huge disconnect between people’s perception of supplements and…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a frequent contributor at TIME, the New York Times, and other media orgs. I write mostly about health and science. I like long walks and the Grateful Dead.