As scientific debate continues over the importance of vitamin supplements, a new study suggests that the children receiving them stand to benefit the least.
"Parents that had children that had healthier diets, higher milk intake, higher fiber intake ... these were the children that seemed to take [the vitamins] most frequently," said Dr. Ulfat Shaikh, one of the study's lead authors.
Shaikh and her colleagues at the medical schools for the University of California-Davis and the University of Rochester in New York used questionnaires, household interviews and medical examinations from the more than 10,000 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examinations Survey.
Overall, they found that children with better diets and who were white, American-born and from higher income families were both more likely to be taking vitamins and less likely to actually need them.
"It seems clear that children who are at risk for [vitamin and mineral] deficiencies are taking them the least," said Dr. Thomas Badger, director of the Arkansas Children's Nutrition Center, who was not involved with the study. "That does not surprise me at all but seeing the data confirms it."
The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend routine use of vitamin supplements in children. But the study indicated their use was widespread. More than one-third of children in the study had taken a supplement in the previous month.
More than 22 percent of children who lived below the poverty line had taken a supplement, while 43 percent of children at twice the poverty income level had taken one.
"Potentially, poverty is a barrier to children who do need these supplements using them," co-author Shaikh said.
She noted that the risk factors of lower income children might prompt clinicians to recommend vitamin supplements.
But she noted that better quality food would be more helpful in reducing nutritional deficits than simply taking vitamin supplements.
"Experts do say that a healthy diet supplement in a pill form, in a tablet form, does not completely replace all the goodness that a healthy diet brings," Shaikh said. "These articles of food have other nutrition, have other nutrients that the pill form doesn't completely compensate for."
A Temporary Substitute
But she said that the pill could be a temporary substitute for the balanced diet some cannot afford.
"If that cannot be obtained, at least a multivitamin supplement is indicated," she said.
A Security Blanket With a Lot of Holes?
Joanne Ikeda, a retired nutrition education specialist from the University of California-Berkeley, was a bit more skeptical of the benefits from supplements.
"I think we have to be concerned about the fact that vitamin and mineral supplements do not have all the nutrients necessary for good health," Ikeda said.
She noted that there are more than 50 nutrients doctors know of that are needed for good health.
"A lot of those nutrients just are not in supplements," she said.
If they are a security blanket to ensure health, she said, they are "a blanket with a lot of holes missing."
"Giving low income families supplements rather than enough money for a nutritionally adequate diet; they're not equivalent," Ikeda said.
While she "wouldn't be opposed to having low income families giving their children a vitamin supplement," Ikeda said that she believed the money could be better spent on fruits and vegetables, nourishment that many from lower income families do not receive.
"I'd rather take the money and put it there," Ikeda said.
She also expressed concern about how much vitamins children might take, given that vitamins marketed to them are often made to taste like candy.
While she said vitamin supplements may be advised for some children, Ikeda said, "I would caution parents to view it as a medication."