September, 2010 / Author:

Or are you merely giving yourself  expensive pee?

The pee of one man may be a lot more expensive than that of another. No, I am not talking about some weird water sports. This is about those who have an almost religious fervour about supplements. 

They may pig out on vitamins A, B, C, D or E. They may drink exotic herbal concoctions “guaranteed” to restore mental and sexual vigour. Having damned Big Pharma and declared war on our pill-obsessed culture they are determined to supplement their bodies with natural products, not chemicals. They want to stay happy, healthy, forever young and free. Or are they just opting for expensive pee?

From 2003 to 2004, Health Canada moved to ensure vitamins and supplements must show the type, source and potency of ingredients, as well as supporting evidence of health claims.  

“The new regulations certainly had an effect on the kind and the number of products available on the market, as well as the ability to market them effectively,” says Svetlana Uduslivaia, a research analyst for Euromonitor International. “The overall market has been shrinking, especially with regards to vitamins and dietary supplements. We anticipate a decline of over one per cent in constant value over 2009-2014 in those two areas,” she said in an interview.

Sales of herbal supplements plunged before the new regulations because of warnings about product safety and quality and the lack of good science behind their claims.

Sales of some foods – extra-calcium milk, omega-3 fortified milk and omega-3 juices – have also been weak, despite the hype.  Bill Martineau, market analyst for The Freedonia Group, which analyzes trends, says he expects to see growth in the development of nutraceuticals, but consumers are still wary. “Full or partial reimbursement for prescription medication typically reduces consumer propensity to purchase nutritional preparations, functional foods, dietary supplements and other nutraceutical-based products,” he says.

 Market experts expect a five per cent increase in constant value of vitamin D sales from 2009-2014. This is attributed to many studies and endorsements by health professionals that claim health benefits for vitamin D supplements. Fish oils are another area of projected growth, as are probiotic supplements.

Marni McFadden a dietitian with Nine Circles Health Centre, says she’s leery of mega-dosing on single vitamins or supplements, but has no problem with multivitamins, which many people take.

“There are situations where people may have a deficiency in vitamin D or calcium or iron and it’s fine to take extra,” she says. “But it gets trickier on the herbal side because we often lack evidence on the longer-term effects and some of them can interact negatively with medications.”

Illustration by DYLAN BEKKERING
A good example would be St. John’s Wort, often taken for depression. It has been shown to interact with anti-retroviral medications taken by people with HIV.

McFadden says some supplements claim to help with cholesterol levels or arthritis, but again there is a lack of documented evidence. “There might also be a placebo effect where people believe it is helping and that’s OK as long as the product does no harm,” she says.

So who to trust? For your health’s sake, consult a doctor of dietitian before going overboard. Pricey pee is not a sound investment.

–Peter Carlye-Gordge is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer, former producer for CBC and former Maclean’s writer. To comment on this or any other article in Outwords, write to

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