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Take multivitamins? You're 'wasting money'

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Ray Kurzweil epitomizes America's belief in vitamins: if vitamins are good for your body, then more of them must be better. Of course, your body needs vitamins, but the engineering director at Google takes 150 nutritional supplements every day in his quest to live long enough for life-expanding technology to mature. And while he's an extreme example, he's not alone in his reliance on the vitamin and mineral boost. 

Sales of vitamin and mineral supplement reached $23 billion last year in the United States. The problem: It's a myth that vitamins and supplements have health benefits for people without a deficiency.

But the vitamin industry took a big hit yesterday when an editorial in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine warned consumers to "stop wasting money on vitamin and mineral supplements."

The editorial was supported by three studies on vitamin and mineral supplement use. The first found that daily multivitamin use did not slow cognitive decline in older men. The second found that a high-dose of multivitamins and minerals did not help prevent heart attacks in people who previously suffered from one. The third found that vitamin and mineral supplements did not prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease or death in general for healthy individuals with no nutritional deficiencies. 

The findings from all three led the journal to this conclusion: "most mineral and vitamin supplements have no clear benefit, might even be harmful in well-nourished adults, and should not be used for chronic disease prevention."

What should the 40 percent of Americans who take multivitamins do instead?

Dr. Edgar Miller, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the editorial's five co-authors, tells CBS News that people should focus on improving their diet and activity level. "What will protect you is if you spend the money on fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, low fat dairy, things like that ... exercising would probably be a better use of the money."

So why are Americans still taking multivitamins in such large quantities? As The Week points out, it's a mix of a lack of federal regulation on vitamins and the difficulty for consumers to break their "magic pill" habit. 

But don't expect the vitamin industry to go down without a fight.

"The editorial demonstrates a close-minded, one-sided approach that attempts to dismiss even the proven benefits of vitamins and minerals," said Steve Mister, President & CEO of Council for Responsible Nutrition, a leading trade association in the vitamin industry. "It’s a shame for consumers that the authors refuse to recognize the real-life need for vitamin and mineral supplementation, living in a fairy-tale world that makes the inaccurate assumption that we’re all eating healthy diets and getting everything we need from food alone."

Still, for the authors of the editorial, "the case is closed" on vitamin supplements. For consumers, that's yet to be determined.

Photo: Flickr/Derek K. Miller

— By on December 18, 2013, 11:20 AM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure