Are We on the Road to Hypervitaminosis?

by Hassan Dashti

The turn of the century came with many changes in the way we obtain our nutrients, and perhaps the most noticeable changes is the introduction of newer vitamin and mineral supplemented beverages like Gatorade, Vitamin Water®, and Diet Coke Plus®. With each serving of these drinks comes a large percentage of essential nutrients which generally have low intakes in the United States and around the world, including vitamins A and B, and minerals such as zinc and magnesium. These drinks not only promise refreshing taste, but also essential nutrients that are critical for proper development and survival. For example, Diet Coke Plus® provides 15% of a person’s RDI for niacin, vitamins B6, and B12, and 10% for zinc and magnesium in each eight-ounce serving. On the other hand, different flavors of Vitamin Water ® provide different vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B and potassium in the fruit punch flavor, and eight key nutrients including vitamin A and zinc in the lemonade flavor.

Hypervitaminosis is a condition of high storage levels of vitamins in the body. Having extremely high levels of certain vitamins can lead to toxic symptoms, such as acute effects like hair loss, nausea and vomiting, or more serious effects including birth defects, liver problems and reduction in bone mineral density. Hypervitminosis is more common among fat-soluble vitamins which are stored in adipose tissue, such as vitamin A, vitamin K and vitamin D. Death by hypervitaminosis is rare and very unlikely, however. An average of one death per year in the United States has been directly attributed to hypervitaminosis.

Nutritionists and dietitians emphasize the importance of adequate vitamin and mineral intake for proper development and disease prevention. The consumption of fruits and vegetables, which used to be the only means of obtaining these nutrients, is now being replaced by dietary supplements and these vitamin-enriched beverages. So, are all these different sources essentially the same? Do they all provide us with the same nutrients our body demands?

The answer to this question will tell us if we could or couldn’t replace our fruits and vegetables with drinks like Diet Coke Plus®. If the vitamin B6 we get from cauliflower is the same as the vitamin B6 we get from Diet Coke Plus®, then we should be OK with this substitution. Not only that, but we should also start providing a can of Diet Coke Plus®, which costs under a dolor, and these other beverages to people deficient in certain vitamins and minerals.

You are all thinking by now that this sounds absurd! Unfortunately, this is exactly how companies are now promoting their products. They are offering their drinks, which everyone loves and affords, with the additional benefit of providing these essential nutrients. People will consume these beverages excessively now that they know that to a certain degree these beverages are “healthy” by providing essential nutrients our bodies need and that lack in their diet. So it becomes important to find out where the downfalls are.

We, as students of nutrition, all know that fruits and vegetables are the best sources of vitamins and minerals. But, how do we convince the rest of the people that beverages like Diet Coke Plus® are really not that great? Well, it turns out that the main difference between fruits and vegetables and supplements and enriched beverages is that these supplements and supplemented beverages have overwhelmingly high concentrations of vitamins and minerals, mostly in excess of the RDI . Consuming excessive amounts of these supplements and supplemented beverages could lead to toxicities. Previous cases of hypervitaminosis were always associated with cases of supplementation, and not fruits and vegetables intake. In addition, it is critical to consider the amount of vitamins and minerals in supplements and beverages prior to consuming them, as well as considering other nutrients within these supplemented beverages. In addition to containing 100% of your vitamin RDI, Vitamin Water ® also includes significant amounts of sugars which could promotes obesity, diabetes and other health problems.

These two key issues are valid to reject the claim that fruits and vegetables have benefits equivalent to supplements and supplemented beverages. And as students of nutrition, it is our job to advocate the importance of fruits and vegetables as the primary sources of fruits and vegetables in order to avoid the road to hypervitaminosis and obesity.

Hassan Dashti is a student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program. He is an international student from Kuwait, and completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Even since he started learning about nutrition science at Penn, he has been excited by the research taking place in this field.

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