Dec. 28, 2023
The market for dietary supplements – vitamins, minerals, botanicals, herbs, and other products promoted as ways to help you feel better, look better, perform better, sleep better, and stay healthy – is booming, and that boom isn’t done. In 2021, U.S. consumers spent more than $48 billion on supplements; that number is projected to grow more than 5% annually over the next 5 years.
The industry grew from about 4,000 products in 1994 to 80,000 in 2016. At least half of U.S. adults take dietary supplements, according to 2021 federal statistics. Three-quarters of the people who took a 2023 consumer survey done by the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the trade association representing supplement makers and ingredient suppliers, said they take supplements.
Despite this enthusiasm, experts worry about adverse effects from mega doses and point out the lack of evidence of benefit for many supplements. More government oversight is sorely needed, others say. Currently, the FDA’s role in regulating supplements usually begins only after the product is on the market.
Profile of a Supplement User
While some consumers are seasonal or occasional users, others are passionate supplement takers like Suzanne Bank, an interior designer in Studio City, CA. Among her regular supplements are vitamin C, apple cigar vinegar for digestion, tri-magnesium for healthy muscle function, and cat’s claw, promoted for brain health.
“They have kept me going, kept me leading an active life,” said Bank, who said she is past “typical” retirement age but still operates her own business. “I’m healthy, I don’t get sick, and I look far, far younger than my age.”
Bank said she hasn’t had any adverse effects, even after more than 40 years of regular supplement use.
So, Which Supplements Work?
According to the FDA, dietary supplements can help improve or maintain overall health, as well as help people meet the daily requirements of essential nutrients. It also says: “While the benefits of some supplements are well established, other supplements need more study.” It cautions that supplements should not take the place of a variety of foods crucial for a healthy diet.
Most people view supplements, at worst, as benign preventive products, said Jeffrey A. Linder, MD, MPH, chief of general internal medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. But they aren’t always harmless. With too much emphasis and reliance on supplements, Linder said, “I’m more worried that people are getting distracted from things that will actually help them be healthy, like exercise, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight.”
While there’s no one-stop reference on which supplements are worth taking, various organizations as well as researchers attempt to summarize the evidence and issue conclusions.
What Works? Research on Supplements for Musculoskeletal Health
In a special issue of the journal Nutrients, researchers submitted 13 studies and four reviews of studies, concluding that a wide variety of supplements can help improve the health of bones and muscles in people with and without certain diseases.