Are nutritional supplements really necessary?

Americans spend more than 30 billion dollars on nutritional supplements each year. Given that staggering investment, one might reasonably expect a healthy, long-lived populace. Sadly, recent demographic data suggests that we can anticipate poorer health outcomes and shorter life spans on average for the first time in a century.

It is not uncommon to encounter articles in the popular press whose sole mission is to marginalize the value of nutritional supplements. This article is not one of them. Better, I think, to introduce some nuance into the conversation.

The Bad News

In 2015, the office of the New York State Attorney General reviewed numerous private label supplements from well-known retail chains and uncovered some disturbing trends. Their discoveries included contaminated products or ingredients that did not meet the stated potencies. In many cases, they contained none of the main ingredients listed on the label.*

While this would seem to bolster the critics who declare all supplements a useless waste of money, the real lesson to be learned here is that you get what you pay for.

Chain store private label supplements are frequently described as “best value” (read inexpensive) when they are, in fact, often poor-quality products that are hiding behind a known brand name. They target price-conscious consumers who prioritize cost over all other considerations. This begs the question; would you buy a used compact car and expect a luxury sedan experience?

The Good News

Though the supplement industry remains mostly unregulated, there are standards set by third parties aimed at ensuring safety and potency. Manufacturers also have the option of attaining accreditations through compliance with published manufacturing guidelines.

While internal testing for quality and potency is encouraged, third-party testing remains the gold standard for any supplement maker wishing to distinguish themselves in the marketplace.

Many of the best supplements are employed in clinical trials, which further enhance our appreciation and understanding of these valuable chemistries. For example, BCM-95/Curcugreen, a patented extract of turmeric, has been included in 50 clinical trials over the last 15 years. They are continually proven to be both safe and beneficial in many contexts.

OK, but do I really need them?

Our ancient ancestors consumed a variety of foods of both plant and animal origin. These items were (by default) fresh, organic, and local. Prehistorical humans also consumed more than 100 grams of fiber a day and drank only water. By contrast, modern Americans regularly consume highly processed “foods” and many dubious beverages. All of these products are ultimately sourced from soils depleted of essential minerals. For example, we might compare a juicy, dark red organic tomato to the pale supermarket variety, which looks and tastes like plastic.

We are also at a disadvantage environmentally, as we are mainly unwilling participants in an ongoing experiment of chronic exposure to novel chemistries and stresses unknown to our predecessors.

When it comes to choosing supplements, I think we can safely discard certain categories of products, including anything that claims to make us younger, stronger, more virile, or will help us lose 10 pounds in 10 minutes.

While individual circumstances vary, most of us, at one time or another, will experience nutrient deficiencies or quality of life challenges that supplements could address. It may be helpful to consider supplementation as an investment in future good health, rather than a solution to any particular problem. Most nutrients prove more useful over time, and some effects may not be discernable on a subjective basis. Working with a qualified health professional can help you determine any needs you might have.

*We do our very best to evaluate every product sold in our store, including our private label supplements. Manufacturers are researched for their dedication to quality, purity, and potency before their products are considered. Third-party testing is the gold standard for verification of quality which is what we look for.

About the Author

Joel Hall

Coastal Pharmacy & Wellness Staff

At Coastal, Joel is our go-to guy for anything related to supplementation and the complex role nutrients play in every bodily function. Although he may be reserved, helping people find their way to optimal health drives what he does. If you see him staring intently at his computer screen, he’s most likely researching something that most of us can only partly understand. He loves sharing his accumulated knowledge and spends as much time as necessary to explain things in a way to help you make good health decisions. He's been working in the wellness arena since the early 2000's and has been in the pursuit of nutritional knowledge since way before that. You can find him behind the wellness desk Tuesdays through Saturdays. For more information read our profile on Joel.


This site provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The words and other content provided in the site and any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. Information provided here is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If the reader or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other health care worker.

Where health claims of dietary supplements are referenced, the statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products are not meant to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.