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Supplement Proponents’ Claims
By Gary F. Zeolla
Are nutritional supplements necessary for good health? The manufacturers and sellers of supplements would give an emphatic answer of “Yes!” to this question. To support this contention, they propose several reasons why you need to take supplements to be healthy. These can be found by doing an Internet search for phrases like “why take supplements” or “are supplements necessary.” In this four-part article, I will review each of their claims to see how valid they are.
Note: I was going to use the information in this four-part article as two chapters in a book to be titled Supplements: Most Are Worthless. A Few Are Worthwhile. But I have gotten sidetracked with other books. But since I already did the research and wrote out this information, I thought it good to present it in this format. Maybe someday in the future, I will get back to the book itself. If I do, it will add considerably to this discussion.
The first claim to support the contention we need to take supplements is that the soil in the United States is deleted of nutrients due to over-farming and other modern-day agricultural practices. As a result, today’s produce contains few if any vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other beneficial elements. But is this claim true?
My dad has had a backyard garden for as long as I can remember, that is to say, for at least 50 years. He learned a long time ago a couple of steps to take in order to have a bountiful harvest each year.
The first step my dad takes is to fertilize his garden plot. If he did not do so, it would yield little or no produce. In other words, after a few years of planting in the same plot, the plot’s yield each year would get less and less, as plants will not grow at all or will grow smaller and yield smaller and fewer fruit if the soil is depleted.
As such, farmers and backyard gardeners know to fertilize their soil. The only question is if they will use natural or chemical fertilizer. In the case of my dad, each fall, after the growing season has ended, he gets a truckload of manure dropped on his garden plot. He spreads it out and plows it into his soil. He then plants “winter rye.” It grows over the winter. Winter rye is unique in that it resorts to the soil the nutrients that other plants take out of it. Then in the spring, he plows that into the soil. Between the manure and the winter rye, the nutrients that the vegetables took out of the soil during the growing season are restored before the next seeds are planted. He then uses smaller amounts of manure as needed throughout the growing season. This gives him a robust harvest every year.
If the idea of using manure on soil seems strange to the reader, it shouldn’t, as that is how plants were fertilized throughout most of human history and how all organic famers today fertilize their soil. This can be seen in the Bible, in a parable that Jesus told:
6Then He spoke this parable: “A certain [man] had a fig tree having been planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find [any]. 7Then he said to the vineyard keeper, ‘Look! Three years I [have] come looking for fruit in this fig tree and do not find [any]. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ 8But answering, he says to him, ‘Lord, let it alone this year also, until which [time] I dig around it and put piles of manure [fig., fertilizer] [on it]. 9And if then it produces fruit [fine], but if not, in the coming [year] you will cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9; ALT3).
The Analytical Literal Translation (ALT) is this writer’s own translation of the Bible. As the name indicates, it is a very literal translation of the original Greek text. That is why it has “put piles of manure.” But, as the bracketed note indicates, the meaning here is that of fertilizer. I include this note as many today do not seem to know that manure is used to fertilize ground. That is why most modern-day Bible translation have just “fertilize it” here.
However, most modern-day, large-scale farming operation today use chemical fertilizers. But either way, the point is farmers and gardeners know to fertilize their ground or plant will not grow. Note that in His parable, Jesus does not say the fig tree is producing non-nutritious fruit but that it is not producing any fruit.
This is one fairy-tale that refuses to die. Vitamins are not found loose in the soil just waiting for plants to soak them up into their roots. Plants make vitamins from several building blocks in the soil. Minerals are taken up from the soil, but if there is a deficiency in a mineral needed for plant growth, it simply will not produce viable amounts of fruits or vegetables. Depleted soil is not commercially profitable. Therefore, farmers use fertilizers containing the needed nutrients for specific crops (Nutrient Rich).
The second step my dad takes is to rotate his crops each year. By that is meant, one year he will plant say lettuce at the east end of his garden and corn at the west end. Then the next year, he will plant the lettuce on the west end and the corn at the east end. The reason for this is some crops take out nutrients that others restore. Thus, crop rotation is a common practice among farmers and gardeners in order to ensure continual high yields. This is one reason for a rather obscure command in the Bible:
19‘You* will observe My law. … and you will not sow your vineyard [Heb., field] with diverse seed (Leviticus 19:19b).
9“You will not sow your vineyard with diverse [seed], lest the fruit be devoted [fig., defiled], (Deuteronomy 22:9a).
The idea here is, seed should not be intermixed when it is sown, thus causing different plants to grow in the same area. If such were done, then rotating crops would not be possible. This is not specifically mentioned, as there are other possible reasons for this command, such as greater ease in harvesting.
This command is directed more toward a large farm, so that one field should be sown with say wheat and another with barley. But for a backyard garden like my dad’s, this law would be fulfilled by sowing one row or area of a plot with only one kind of seed, then the next row or area with another, etc. This practice enables crop rotation, so that the soil is kept from being depleted of nutrients.
Crop rotation helps mitigate each of these effects. Different types of plants require different types of nutrients from the soil. Changing crops routinely allows the land to remain fertile, since not all of the same nutrients are being used each season. For example, planting a legume, such as soybeans, helps to replenish necessary nitrogen in the soil (Wonderopolis).
Given the preceding facts, where does the claim of less nutritious produce due to soil depletion come from? It comes from comparing USDA nutrient tables for the nutrient levels in foods from today to the 1950s, when such tables were first produced. It is claimed they show a significant reduction in these levels. However, in most cases, they are only a minor reduction, not significant enough to require the use of supplements to make up for the reduction but simply to consume slightly more produce.
There is limited research in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom and this does show that there has been depletion of nutrients within selected produce over the last 25-50 years. A broad range of vitamins and minerals have been found to be lower, including vitamins A and C, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper.
However, our fruits and veggies are still loaded with those all-important nutrients. And any claims suggesting that our veggies are worthless or are 50x less potent are often disingenuous. In fact, with spinach in particular, vitamins C and A as well as calcium, potassium, and magnesium are lower by 45%, 17%, 6%, 18%, and 10% respectively. This means that, if anything, we’d need to eat 2x the amount of spinach to get the same amount of vitamin C vs. 50 years ago and as far as the other nutrients, anywhere from 1.6x-1.18x the amount. So it isn’t as bad as some are saying (Precision Nutrition).
However, even this might be overstating the case. It is more likely that the differences are due to wrongly interpreting the data, or more probably due to other confounding factors.
For major cations of selected fresh produce crops, ternary diagrams show no real loss in the balance of mineral nutrition in food crops. Although it may be hypothesized that a decline in soil quality has led to an apparent decline in food nutrition, more controlled studies are needed to factor out the many variables associated with the food composition tables and this type of analysis….
A study by Bear et al. (1948) found wide variation in the cation-summation values for snap-bean between various regions due to the effects of different soil types and varying climatic conditions….
The widespread use of soil testing and fertilizers as part of the strategy for the increasing yields of modern agriculture also argues strongly against the notion of widespread soil depletion of mineral nutrients (Are Depleted).
In addition, initial nutrient content is affected by the particular cultivar (e.g., Red Delicious and Fuji apples), soil type, production system (conventional, organic, etc.), and weather conditions (temperature, humidity, daylight hours, etc.) during growth (UC Davis)
The point is; the reason nutrient composition tables today show lower levels of nutrients than in the past probably has nothing to do with soil depletion. It is more likely do to differing methodologies used to calculate the nutrients in food from today versus back then. Or it could be because of sampling differences. Foods grown in different parts of the country would have different nutrients levels for a variety of reasons. And that is probably all that is being reflected in the nutrient composition tables.
It should also be noted that if you look up say a carrot in a nutrient composition table, either via a hardcopy food composition book, software program, website, or smart phone app, you will be getting the amounts of nutrients in that carrot today, assuming it is an updated table.
Using such updated tables, I kept track of my diet for several years, and the calculations showed I easily consume over 100% of the recommended amounts of a wide variety of nutrients; and for most nutrients, I consume 2-4 times the recommended amounts. It is thus more than possible to consume sufficient nutrients without supplements with today’s foods. See My Diet/ Eating Plan for details.
Conclusion on Soil Depletion:
I have gone into details on how farmers and gardeners keep their soil fertile, as most people today are so far removed from actually growing food they have no idea about any of this. As a result, they fall for the myth that that nutrient depleted soil produces nutrient depleted produce. When in fact, nutrient depleted soil does not yield less nutritious produce, it yields, less produce, or no produce at all. Any backyard gardener knows this, such as my dad, and so do small and large scale famers. Consequently, they take steps to keep their soil nutrient-rich so as to have a robust harvest and a profitable business. Not doing so would put them out of business. And such practices have been known for millennia, ever since Biblical times.
Dietary Reference Intakes
Having mentioned “recommended amounts,” it would be good to define what is meant by that, which will lead us to another claim of supplement manufactures and sellers. This phrase is a reference to the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). These are set by the USA Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies. The recommendations are separated into four groups:
1. Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA): the average daily dietary intake level that is sufficient to meet the nutrient requirement of nearly all (97 to 98 percent) healthy individuals in a group.
2. Adequate Intake (AI): a value based on observed or experimentally determined approximations of nutrient intake by a group (or groups) of healthy people—used when an RDA cannot be determined.
3. Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL): the highest level of daily nutrient intake that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects to almost all individuals in the general population. As intake increases above the UL, the risk of adverse effects increases.
4. Estimated Average Requirement (EAR): a nutrient intake value that is estimated to meet the requirement of half the healthy individuals in a group (NCBI).
The Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) are nutrient reference values developed by the Institute of Medicine of The National Academies. They are intended to serve as a guide for good nutrition and provide the scientific basis for the development of food guidelines in both the United States and Canada. These nutrient reference values are specified on the basis of age, gender and lifestage and cover more than 40 nutrient substances (National Academies).
What all this means is the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is the level of a nutrient that scientific studies have shown to be sufficient to cover the vast majority of individuals. But when there is not sufficient scientific information to set an RDA, then an Adequate Intake (AI) is indicated. This value also indicates the amount of a nutrient that supports a healthy individual, though the scientific evidence is not as strong for that level.
To put it another way, nutrient requirements are a bell curve. There is a tiny percentage of people at both the low and high need ends, with most people being in the middle. The RDIs are set so as to cover most of the people on even the high end. That means, the vast majority of people are in the middle and thus need less than the RDIs.
RDAs or AIs have been set for all well-known vitamins and minerals, like vitamin A and C and the minerals calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg), along with lesser known nutrients, such as vitamin K, copper (Cu), and Molybdenum (Mo). These values differ from the Daily Values (DVs). Those are the levels used for food labeling. The DVs are based on the RDAs from 1968. As such, they are terribly out of date, so this article will only refer to the RDIs or RDAs.
The RDIs also differ greatly from the MDRs (Minimum Dietary Requirements). The MDRs were the initial attempt by government authorities to indicate the minimal of nutrients needed by individuals to prevent gross nutrient deficiencies, such as scurvy from an inadequate intake of vitamin C or beriberi due to an inadequate intake of vitamin B1 (thiamin). The MDRs have not been used for decades, but you will still see some supplement proponents refer to them.
These definitions are important, as supplement manufacturers and sellers will often claim the RDAs are only the levels of nutrients that will prevent gross nutrient deficiencies, but that they are inadequate for optimal health. They thus claim you need to take supplements to attain the levels needed for optimal health. That claim is true, but only in regard to the outdated and no longer used MDRs. But it is not true in regard to the RDAs. Those values are much higher and are intended to cover the nutrient needs of the vast majority of individuals.
Supplement makers and sellers will further claim that as we age we need higher levels of nutrients, as absorption levels decrease. They also claim athletes, pregnant or breast-feeding women, and others with “special needs” require higher needs. Those claims are true. However, the RDIs are divided into separate values for men and women, for different age groups, and for pregnant and lactating women. Athletes would be included in the 97-98% of people covered by the RDIs.
In other words, varying needs are well known by scientific authorities, and recommended intakes are based on that knowledge. But the supplement promoters try to make it sound like they are articulating something that has not been considered in setting the nutrient intake recommendations. They then use this false idea to claim you need to take supplements to attain these varying levels.
But in fact, in almost all cases, it is more than possible to attain the RDIs from food, if proper food choices are made. In the very rare cases when that is not possible or at least very difficult, then supplements are recommend. Again, the supplement proponents make it sound like they have figured out something the authorities have not. But in fact, during “special” situations, such as pregnancy, standard practice is to recommend supplemental nutrients as needed.
Finally, supplements proponents claim there are wide variations in nutrient needs among individuals. The implication is that you, the consumer, are probably among the group that needs higher than normal levels and thus need to take supplements to attain these levels.
The first half of this claim is true, but again, that is taken into account when developing the RDIs. They are intended to cover 97-98% of the population. As such, almost certainly, you the reader, are included in the recommended levels. The remaining 2-3% would represent those who are suffering from some known overt health problem that requires higher levels. By that is meant someone who say has burns over 50% of his or her body and is in the hospital. In that case, the person would probably be receiving intravenous nutrients. But unless you are in the hospital with tubes coming out of you, then you are not in this “special” group.
It is also worth noting, in saying people’s need vary, supplement proponents always seem to assume the reader is among the ones who need higher levels. But in fact, you the reader are much more likely to among those who need lower or medium levels. As such, the RDIs would represent levels that are much higher than you actually need.
The next claim is that modern-day tap water is depleted of minerals, and filtered and bottled water more so, especially of magnesium. As such, we need to take supplements in order to consume sufficient amounts of these minerals.
However, as already indicated, it is more than possible to consume sufficient amounts of nutrients from food alone, so any minerals from water would be a “bonus” and not really needed to attain sufficient nutrient levels. For instance, I consume on average about 150% of the RDA for magnesium from my food intake. Any further magnesium from water would be on top of that. Moreover, it is not true that tap water is devoid of minerals. A recent study by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) looked at this question:
The mineral composition of tap water may contribute significant amounts of some minerals to dietary intake. The USDA’s Nutrient Data Laboratory (NDL) conducted a study of the mineral content of residential tap water, to generate new current data for the USDA National Nutrient Database. Sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc were determined in a nationally representative sampling of drinking water…
• Assuming a daily intake of water to be 2 liters, the water would provide >1% of recommended intake for only four minerals; copper, 10%; calcium, 6%; magnesium, 5%; and sodium, 3%.
• Even the maximum concentration would supply only about 20% of Ca, 23% of Mg, 10% of Zn, and 33% of Na. The highest value for Cu would, however, supply 400%....
• On average, the content of calcium and magnesium in the drinking water meets the 20-30 mg/L calcium and 10 mg/L magnesium suggested by epidemiological research for health benefits.
• The sodium and magnesium values, on average, were the lowest for the Northeast and South samples.
• The Midwest and West well water showed the most overall variability in mineral content (Mg, Ca, and Na [sodium]).
• These data support studies of the contributions of drinking water to total intake of important minerals in the US diet and resulting recommendations (USDA).
What this means is, water is generally not a significant source of minerals, but it is not devoid of minerals either and can contribute to overall intake. This is further borne out in a study comparing tap and bottled water:
We contacted the municipal water authorities of the 25 most populous cities in North America to obtain mineral analysis reports. We requested information regarding levels of Ca2+, Mg2+, and Na+ for all of the water sources in each of these municipalities…
We obtained Ca2+, Mg2+, and Na+ levels for 37 commercially available North American bottled waters from a previous study and from published data regarding bottled waters….
Mineral levels of tap water vary among North American cities and even among different water sources within the same city. Variations in mineral levels also exist among commercially available bottled waters….
The average North American consumes insufficient quantities of Ca2+ and Mg2+ and too much Na+. Recommended dietary intakes of Ca2+ and Mg2+ are best fulfilled via the consumption of foods in which these minerals are abundant and bioavailable. The results of our study suggest that drinking water may be an important dietary source of Ca2+, Mg2+, and Na+. This is because minerals are highly bioavailable in water and because drinking water sources available to North Americans may contain clinically important levels of these minerals. Adequate daily consumption of some tap and bottled waters may help North American children and adults supplement dietary intake of Ca2+ and Mg2+ as well as reduce Na+ intake (NCBI).
Two important points in this study. First, the mineral content of both tap and bottled water is highly variable. But whatever it is, intake of minerals “are best fulfilled via the consumption of foods.”
As for filtered water, it is difficult to get accurate information on this subject, as the only sources are companies that sell various types of water filtration or purification devices. But it does appear true that a water filter will remove some minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, but it does not remove all of these minerals. Brita is in of the largest manufacturers of water filers. In a FAQ on its site, it states:
Does the BRITA water filter cartridge remove all minerals from drinking water?
The BRITA water filter cartridge only partially removes the hardness from drinking water. This part is temporary hardness, which causes scale deposits during cooking. It does not remove all of the minerals from the water. It reduces the concentration of calcium and magnesium with cation ion exchange resins, but these substances are not completely removed as in desalination systems or industrial plants that use reverse osmosis or distillation processes, for example (Brita).
It should also be noted that filtered water is different from purified or distilled water. Both purified and distilled water remove virtually all minerals, while the amounts removed by filters are much less so. There is much debate as to which of these, or just good old tap water, is best. Some claim purified or distilled water will “leech” minerals from your body, while others say this is bunk. Meanwhile, some claim that tap water is dangerous due to its chlorine and even fluoride content. But this claim is usually made by those selling water filtration devices and/ or supplements.
As for myself, for most of my life I have drunk filtered water. But in the early ‘00s, due to the recommendation of an alternative doctor, I began to use a water distiller. It was a real pain in the neck to use, but thinking it was helping my health, I continued to use it for several years. During that time, my health deteriorated. I eventually gave up using it and went back to filtered water, and my health improved. If there was a connection, I cannot say for sure. But distilling the water did not in any way help my health.
A discussion of chlorine and fluoride in water is outside the scope of this four-part article. But I will say, I drink filtered water as I prefer the taste. But the important point of all of this is talk of depleted water is a smokescreen to get people to buy supplements. No matter what type of water you drink, you should not depend on it for mineral intake. But in no way does this then mean you need to take a supplement to attain minerals. More than adequate mineral levels can be attained from food.
Part Two of this four-part article will be posted on this website after it appears in the next issue of FitTips for One and All.
General (for all four parts):
All Scripture references are from: Analytical-Literal Translation of the Bible (ALT). Copyright © 1999-2019 by Gary F. Zeolla (www.Zeolla.org). Bolding added for emphasis.
9 News. Common nutrition myths.
Authority Nutrition: 7 Nutrient Deficiencies That Are Incredibly Common.
Ben Greenfield Fitness. 5 Reasons To Take Nutritional Supplements.
Bulletproof. Why Getting Your Nutrition Only from Food is A Bad Idea.
Care2. 10 Reasons to Take Nutritional Supplements.
Farmacopia. Dangers of Supplementation.
Hardvard Health. Getting your vitamins and minerals through diet.
Health.gov. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for America.
Huffington Post. Debunked! 7 Common Senior Nutrition Myths.
Parsonnet, Mia. M.D. What’s in Our Food? Madison books: New York, 1996.
PR Newswire. Nine Out of 10 Americans Fall Short of Key Nutrients They Need, New Study Concludes.
Stay Healthy and Well. Why Do We Need Supplements?
For Specific Sections in this Part One:
Diet Power 4.4 software. Copyright 1992-2009 by DietPower inc.
Quack O Meter. Mineral-Depleted Food Scandal.
MD Prevent. Truth About Soil Depletion: The Conclusions Of The Study That Feeds The Myths.
Mother Earth News. Maintain Healthy Soil with Crop Rotation.
Nutrient Rich. Myth: Depleted soil produces less nutritious fruits and vegetables.
Precision Nutrition. Soil depletion and organic produce.
UC Davis. Maximizing the Nutritional Value of Fruits & Vegetables.
Wisconsin University. Are Depleted Soils Causing a Reduction in the Mineral Content Of Food Crops?
Wonderopolis. Why Is Crop Rotation Important?
YouTube. Depleted Soil Myth Used To Market Vitamins.
Dietary Reference Intakes:
National Academies of Sciences: Dietary Reference Intakes Tables and Application.
NCBI. Dietary Reference Intakes: A Risk Assessment Model for Establishing Upper Intake Levels for Nutrients.
NutraSanus. Vitamin E Benefits and Dosage Information. Webpage no longer available.
Brita. Exact webpage no longer available.
Livestrong: Does Tap Water Have More Minerals Than Filtered Water?
NCBI. Comparison of the Mineral Content of Tap Water and Bottled Waters.
USDA. Mineral Content of US Drinking and Municipal Water.
Supplement Proponents’ Claims: Part One. Copyright © 2019 by Gary F. Zeolla.
The above article first appeared in the free
FitTips for One and All newsletter.
It was posted on this site December 1, 2019.
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