Do vitamin supplements just give you “expensive urine”?

You’ve probably heard of the five-a-day rule, intended to help us meet our nutritional needs with fruits and vegetables – but when diets fall short, vitamin supplements have long been used as a way to make up for the deficit. But do they really work?

Or, as some have suggested, do vitamins just leave us with expensive urine?

What is that “expensive urine” you’re talking about?

Anyone who’s ever consumed a B vitamin supplement will tell you that it does lively things to your urine, a side effect so common that the buzzy experts at Berocca even talk about it on their website.

“All Berocca products contain B vitamins because they are water soluble, so your body takes what it needs and throws away the rest. The presence of B vitamins in your urine can result in a more intense color. This is harmless and not a cause for concern.”

It’s a brilliant demonstration that not everything we consume in supplement form ends up doing much other than coming out the other side. It’s not an “a-ha!” moment for vitamin efficacy, because how much we absorb and discard comes down to our unique physiology.

lots of fruit and nuts

If we are otherwise healthy, our vitamin needs can be met by a balanced diet, but not everyone has access to them.

Image credits: Marilyn Barbone /

“Vitamins are always absorbed, but bioavailability (the amount absorbed by the body) can vary depending on certain factors,” Dr. Carrie Ruxton, a dietitian at the Health and Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS) told IFLScience .

“These include age (older people absorb fewer B vitamins and produce less vitamin D in the body in response to sunlight), nutrient inhibitors (high-fiber plant foods can reduce mineral absorption, while calcium-rich foods can inhibit iron absorption), nutrient enhancers (protein improves mineral absorption, vitamin C improves iron absorption, while dietary fat improves absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K, so add some oil or butter to your vegetables).”

In 1992, then professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York City, Dr. Victor Herbert, told Time Magazine that taking vitamins “doesn’t do you any good. […] We get all the vitamins we need through our diet. Taking supplements only produces expensive urine.”

The slogan caught on, but we have learned a lot more about vitamins in the thirty years since.

Why do we need vitamins?

The word ‘supplement’ means adding something to supplement or enhance it, and in the context of vitamins that means upgrading our diet.

“The main reason is that people have switched from the recommended healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean fresh meat, dairy products, tea and tap water to diets high in sugary soft drinks, crisps, confectionery and biscuits. , ready-made meals and takeaway meals,” Ruxton explains. “These popular options are high in calories, but low in vitamins, minerals, polyphenols and healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids. The Global Burden of Disease study estimated that poor nutrition is now the leading modifiable cause of chronic disease, responsible for around a fifth of deaths worldwide.”

In an ideal world, we would all be able to get everything we need nutritionally from our diets, but that is not always feasible. Vitamins have therefore been suggested for use in numerous settings, in addition to the supplements you see in drugstores.

a lucky iron fishing iron bar

A Lucky Iron Fish that can help manage iron deficiency anemia.

Vitamin A deficiency is fatal among young children and is known to cause blindness in those who survive. Golden Rice wanted to save millions of children’s lives every year by supplementing their diets with beta-carotene, which can be converted in the body to vitamin A, but the rice was never brought to market due to “overly restrictive regulations,” as described by Ed Regis, author of Golden Rice: the endangered birth of a GMO superfood.

Seeing better luck, Lucky Iron Fish released a product intended to address iron deficiencies. It is a fish-shaped cast iron rod that can be boiled in water or used in cooking to boost communities with widespread iron deficiency anemia.

The role of supplementation is clearer in contexts where deficiencies are widespread and significant, but what about daily doses for those who should have access to balanced nutrition?

Do vitamins work?

To understand whether vitamin supplements work, we must first consider what their role is.

“I wish people knew that the role of nutritional supplements is to help us achieve optimal intake of vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fats,” Ruxton continued. “Nutritional supplements are not medicines and do not prevent or treat disease, but they are still an important tool in our arsenal to keep ourselves healthier from childhood to old age.”

A study in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition examined whether or not daily vitamin supplementation could contribute to better brain health into old age, improving memory and slowing cognitive aging in older adults. By giving one group a multivitamin supplement while the other received a placebo, they saw a small improvement in the supplementation group. The daily multivitamin supplement appeared to benefit memory and overall brain function, roughly equivalent to slowing brain aging by about two years.

As Ruxton suggests, vitamins are unlikely to be a panacea for pressing medical problems, but they can help us make marginal gains toward living longer, healthier lives.

vitamin D pill

Other lifestyle factors, such as how much sun we get, can influence vitamin deficiencies.

Image credits: FotoHelin /

A second study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked at the role of specific vitamins in stroke prevention.

It collected data from 14 studies in which participants took vitamin B supplements, and found that these had an effect of around 34 percent on the risk of stroke in areas where no (or little) folic acid was added to food. When they looked at places where folic acid was common, they saw little benefit.

It adds strength to the idea that vitamin supplements can act as a stepping stone to better health outcomes when our diets are lacking in some way, but simply closing the gap won’t work for everything – especially if we don’t take other lifestyle changes into account .

Additionally, vitamins are often billed as a fast track to recovery from illness, but a study published in Clinical Nutrition ESPEN failed to find a strong link between vitamin consumption and markers that could indicate a super-charged immune system.

So no miracle cure, but expensive urine? It’s a little more complicated than that.

The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified healthcare providers with any questions you may have regarding medical conditions.

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at the time of publication. Text, images and links can be edited, deleted or added at a later time to keep the information current.

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