Vitamins & Dietary Supplements

The average person does not get enough vital nutrients in their diet, and it’s difficult for many people to eat balanced, nutritious meals every day. More than half of all U.S. adults supplement their diet with vitamins to make up for this shortfall and to hopefully prevent health issues and nutrient deficiencies from happening.

While it may seem easy and convenient to get nutrients from a pill, the enthusiasm over the effectiveness of supplements isn’t always warranted. Taking too much of a vitamin supplement, exceeding the recommended daily amount, can have serious health consequences. Some vitamins and dietary supplements may also be contraindicated for a person’s gender, age, or stage of life. It’s true that humans need to get a variety of nutrients in the diet to remain healthy. But the source of these nutrients is incredibly important.

What is the history of vitamins and dietary supplements?

People may mistakenly believe that nutrient depletion in processed foods is a problem of the modern era. But that’s not entirely true. Poorly processed foods lacking in vital nutrients has been an issue in the U.S. since the early 1900s. To combat the rise in nutritional deficiencies the multivitamin was invented around the turn of the 20th century.

In the early 1900s, protein, fats, and carbohydrates were the only recognized essential nutrients. At this time in history, food processing lacked the basic sanitation and hygiene guidelines that modern consumers take for granted. Food processors in the early 1900s started to recognize that poor sanitation was the root of many food-borne illnesses.

It’s important to remember that germ-theory was not widely-known until this time. Manufacturers started to sterilize their food to get rid of molds and bacteria to make their products safer for human consumption. Grains were milled to eliminate the husks which would often harbor toxins, while the rice was polished. While these processes sterilized the food and also prolonged the product’s shelf-life, it sapped it of vital nutrients.

Processing grains destroys vitamin B and led to an increase in diseases such as pellagra and beriberi, which are nutritional deficiencies. People with pellagra are lacking in niacin, a type of vitamin B, and experience painful sores and lesions. Beriberi is a deficiency of thiamine, and sufferers experience nerve damage, and in extreme cases, paralysis.

When food manufacturers began sterilizing milk, it destroyed vitamin C, and rates of scurvy increased in children who came from affluent families. When even wealthy people started suffering increased rates of nutritional deficiencies, consumers began to look for answers. It was discovered that improved sterilization processes were depleting everyday food staples of vital nutrients and making adults and children sick with a range of nutritional deficiencies. From there, scientists concluded that food was made up of far more than the three central nutrients fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Scientist Casimir Funk discovered and coined the term “vitamin.” Early vitamin supplements contained iron and vitamin B derived from yeast.

Read More History of Vitamins

Early in the history of the vitamin, the medical community thought the claims and products were fraudulent. But in 1922, the drug company Parke, Davis, and Co. patented a multivitamin called Metagen. Parke, Davis, and Co. are now a part of the pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer. MEtagen was a multivitamin product containing vitamins A, B, and C and was sold to doctors, and then prescribed to patients.

Casimir Funk, the scientist who discovered vitamins, also patented a multivitamin supplement in the 1920s. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, more pharmaceutical companies created and sold vitamins to doctors and the general public.

In the 1940s, the federal government issued the first set of government-sponsored recommended dietary allowances or RDAs. The first RDAs outlined six vitamins and two minerals that consumers should include in their daily diet.

During the 1960s and 1970s, multivitamin therapy studies were conducted, and the FDA attempted to regulate multivitamins the same way it regulates the manufacture, marketing, and sale of prescription drugs. Lobbying, legal actions, and pressure from consumer groups kept vitamin supplements away from stringent FDA regulations, on the basis that it would protect consumer choice and allow for greater variety in the vitamin market.

Today, consumers have access to a wide variety of high-quality vitamins and dietary supplements that are sourced from real foods and plant-based proteins. While vitamins are not regulated to the same degree as prescription medications, they are still subject to stringent guidelines and quality control is assured. Consumers can obtain vitamins for all stages of life and specific health needs. Vitamins also come in a range of products, including chewable, gummies, liquids, tablets, and powders.

But despite the variety, high-quality, and the scientific studies available that bolster the multivitamin’s effectiveness, people still suffer from a range of nutritional deficiencies. Supplementing the diet with high-quality vitamins is useful for preserving health, but they can’t replace nutritious foods and a well-balanced diet that includes adequate servings of fruits and vegetables.

What vitamins does someone need to include in their daily diet?

It is important that consumers do not exceed the daily recommended intake of vitamins. This can reverse the health benefits of the nutrients and can even cause adverse side effects.


Calcium is crucial for maintaining bone and heart health. It can be obtained through dairy-based products, such as milk, and yogurt, or in sardines, tofu, and fortified orange juice — the average adult needs between 1000 and 1200 mg of calcium a day.


Folate is a form of vitamin B and can be found in leafy green vegetables, and lentil beans. The average adult needs 400 mcg of folate per day.


Iron is critical for maintaining adequate hemoglobin levels, and for organ function and energy levels. The average adult needs 8 mg of iron a day, and it can be found in high quantities in organ meats, and turkey.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C helps to maintain the health of the skin and hair, and the immune system. Average adults need around 75 mg of vitamin C per day, and citrus fruits offer high quantities of the nutrient.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps consumers maintain sufficient energy and mood levels. It is also ideal for increasing immune system health. The average person needs anywhere between 600 and 800 IU of vitamin D per day. Salmon, yogurt, and fortified milk are full of this vital nutrient.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 helps the nervous system function properly. Consumers can find vitamin B12 in claims, trout, and fortified breakfast cereals. The average adult needs 2.4 mcg of this vitamin.

Vitamin B6

Consumers can find high levels of B6 in chickpeas, salmon, and chicken breast. B6 is critical for the creation of neurotransmitters and the production of red blood cells. The average person needs 1.5 mg of this vitamin every day.

What dietary supplements can help someone take?

There are dozens of different dietary supplements on the market. But some of the most popular are the following:

Weight-loss Supplements

While coffees, teas, and other beverages contain caffeine, consumers can also purchase caffeine supplements for increased energy and to curb appetite and promote weight loss. White kidney bean extract and green coffee bean extract are also dietary supplements that can help encourage weight loss.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Fish Oil)

Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for maintaining cardiovascular function and promoting heart health. People who are at risk of heart attacks or strokes can benefit from taking fish oil supplements, but the benefits are minimal for otherwise healthy people.


Probiotics promote the health and abundance of beneficial gut flora. For people who’ve had to take antibiotics, supplementing with a high-quality probiotic can minimize the common gastrointestinal side-effects of antibiotic medicines.

What is the current research supporting the use of vitamins and dietary supplements?

While dietary supplements and vitamin supplements do not have to go through the same rigorous testing that prescription drugs do, the benefits of vitamins and supplements are well known. A body of evidence into the importance of proper nutrition and eating a balanced diet go back more than 100 years since the discovery of vitamins and their role in maintaining health.

The biggest issue with vitamins and dietary supplements is that it can be easy for healthy people to exceed the recommended daily doses of vitamins, especially if their diet is already balanced and nutritious. Excessive vitamin intake can increase the chances of cardiovascular issues.

Certain consumers should avoid taking specific nutrient supplements. For example, smokers and pregnant women should avoid vitamin A supplements. In smokers, excess vitamin A can increase lung cancer risk, while excess vitamin A is linked to congenital disabilities.

Unless a physician has indicated otherwise, healthy adult males and post-menopausal women should avoid taking an iron supplement, or a dietary supplement or multivitamin containing iron. Children under the age of six can experience iron poisoning if they accidentally ingest an iron supplement or multivitamin with iron.

It is essential that consumers purchase a multivitamin that is formulated for their age, gender, and stage of life. Multivitamin supplements made for healthy young men and post-menopausal women will not contain potentially dangerous levels of iron, while prenatal vitamins for pregnant women won’t include problematic vitamin A. Consumers should always speak to their primary care physician before taking a multivitamin.