Misleading Advertising of Centrum

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

This ad appeared in the June 1997 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Centrum is a sensibly formulated multivitamin/multimineral product that costs about 10¢ per day. However, the ad contains a mixture of truths, half-truths, and falsehoods intended to suggest that the majority of Americans are not getting the nutrients they need in their diet and should use Centrum to correct the alleged "gaps."

Statement in Ad
Analysis
The key is a well-balanced diet. As nutritional professionals, you know better than anyone that the best nutritional strategy for promoting good health is to eat a wide variety of foods. This statement is true.
Statistics show that 9 out of 10 Americans don't get all the nutrients they need from what they eat, and, in fact, are missing out on important vitamins and minerals.
       
This statement refers a survey conducted between 1976 and 1980. The survey found that only 9% of the participants remembered consuming the recommended number of both fruits and vegetables on the day covered by the survey. This does not mean they were deficient in vitamins or minerals. Dietary surveys that measure nutrient intake for a single day or even a few days, are not suitable for determining the overall quality of an individual's diet. Furthermore, adequate nutrient intake can be achieved with fewer than the recommended number of portions of fruits and vegetables.
Some people have dietary restrictions that make it difficult to eat a well-balanced diet, such as being a vegetarian, lactose intolerant, or on a low-calorie diet. Others may try to eat right, but fall short because of today's busy lifestyles. Most vegetarians have no difficulty designing an adequate diet. Those who eat no animal products at all should supplement with vitamin B12. People who are lactose deficient and must limit their intake of dairy products should take calcium supplements. Most people who are dieting do not need vitamin supplements. Regardless, an individual decision about taking supplements should be based on an analysis of that person's diet. For most people, dietary improvement is more sensible than supplementation.
Centrum can help bridge the gap between what your patients should eat and what they actually do eat. Centrum provides the most up-to-date nutritional support, with the complete range of important vitamins and minerals like the complete antioxidant group, B vitamins such as folic acid and critical minerals like calcium.
This statement is true but misleading. If a diet is inadequate, taking a supplement will improve overall nutrient intake. However, supplements will not correct a diet that is low in fiber or missing the large variety of phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables. The best way to correct an inadequate diet is through dietary modification.
The makers of Centrum recognize that a complete multivitamin—like a healthful diet—should also be well balanced. Our ongoing commitment to research in nutritional science ensures that Centrum provides the right nutrients in the right amounts, at levels that don't exceed the RDA.
Centrum's formula is indeed rational and well-balanced. The fact that the amounts don't exceed the RDA is good. Centrum Senior, which contains half as much iron, is a better formula for people over 50. Chain drugstores sell similar formulations that cost about half as much.
So, for whatever reason your patients don't get their vitamins and minerals from diet alone, make sure they get them from Centrum. Again, the best way to correct an inadequate diet is through dietary improvement. If a problem still remains (such as inadequate calcium intake for women), it may be better to address it with specific supplementation.

In August 1998, I observed a Centrum television commercial during a Fox Health News broadcast. The ad contained images of active people, which, presumably, are intended encourage viewers to associate taking Centrum with health and vigor. After mentioning that Centrum's was formulated to take advantage of scientific knowledge, the narrator added: "Unlock energy. Strengthen immunity." I believe these phrases were intended to suggest that taking Centrum will make people more energetic and more resistant to disease. Vitamins and minerals are needed to metabolize foods and to maintain body immunity. However, the ad is fraudulent because the diet of the average viewer contains sufficient nutrients needed to do these things. Taking extra Centrum will not make people more vigorous or increase general immunity.

Lederle has a long history of deceptive vitamin advertising, most notably for its Stresstabs products. In 1986, the company entered an agreement with New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams under which the Lederle paid $25,000 to the state and promised not to make unsupportable claims that emotional stress causes depletion of water-soluble vitamins, that Stresstabs will reduce the effects of psychological stress, or that consumers undergoing ordinary physical stress can't obtain all necessary nutrients by eating a well balanced diet or taking an ordinary-potency (about 100 % of the U.S. RDA) multiple vitamin supplement. The agreement listed more than a dozen misleading statements from magazine, radio, and television ads.

This article was posted on August 9, 1998.

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