By Steve Mister
Mister is president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition.
Congress is about to restart negotiations on the farm bill, a hugely consequential piece of legislation that funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. About 40 million low-income Americans rely on SNAP benefits to afford food.
Right now, SNAP benefits can be used to purchase virtually any food — but they can’t be used to buy multivitamins. That makes no sense.
In a perfect world, people would get all necessary nutrients every day from the foods they eat. But many low-income Americans struggle to achieve adequate nutrition — and suffer devastating health problems as a result. A growing body of research indicates that multivitamins can help fill these nutrient gaps.
Currently, the version of the farm bill passed by the House contains a provision that would allow SNAP recipients to purchase multivitamins. But the Senate version does not. As the groups hash out their differences, they should be sure to include the provision.
Nutritional shortfalls are a major public health concern. More than six in ten Americans don’t get enough vitamin D and vitamin E. More than one in three lacks enough calcium, magnesium, and vitamin A.
Low-income Americans are particularly at risk. About 40 percent are at risk of at least one vitamin or mineral deficiency. For example, calcium deficits are common among preschool children in low-income communities. And 74 percent of low-income, minority children suffer from a vitamin D deficiency.
Such nutrient shortfalls can cause severe health problems. For example, vitamin D deficiency is linked to bone pain, muscle weakness, cancer, and dementia. Low magnesium is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Inadequate levels of vitamin A can result in progressive eye diseases.
The root cause of these nutritional deficiencies is no mystery. Many Americans struggle to find and afford nutritious food. About 19 million Americans — or 6.2 percent of the population — live in low-income areas far away from supermarkets or other healthy food sources. Folks who live in these “food deserts” are 55 percent less likely to maintain good diets.
Research indicates that multivitamins can help these individuals reduce nutrient shortfalls and prevent serious health problems. Frequent use of multivitamins “virtually eliminated inadequacies of the nutrients examined,” according to a 2017 study in the journal Nutrients.
A study published in JAMA found that a daily multivitamin significantly reduced the incidence of cancer in men. And in another JAMA study, researchers found that supplements of antioxidants and zinc can prevent age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of visual impairment among the elderly in the United States. Higher vitamin D levels are linked to lower risk of colorectal cancer
Unfortunately, low-income Americans often don’t take these multivitamins. Research from the National Institutes of Health shows that “populations at highest risk for nutritional inadequacy who might benefit the most from multivitamins are the least likely to use such products.” In fact, children and adolescents in poor households are about half as likely as their wealthier peers to enhance their diets with a vitamin supplement.
Lawmakers can rectify this disparity by allowing the 40 million SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase multivitamins. The average multivitamin only costs a few cents per day— less than 3 percent of the average SNAP benefit. These supplements are one of the most cost-efficient means of ensuring people consume enough vitamins and minerals.
The House bill would enable SNAP recipients to purchase multivitamins. Unfortunately, the multivitamin provision is buried in a number of other controversial SNAP changes that Senators are concerned about. So they’re hesitant to get on board.
But the multivitamin idea wouldn’t change access to SNAP or reduce benefits, it would simply allow low-income Americans to add multivitamins to their shopping lists, if they wanted to do so. It’s a commonsense idea that all lawmakers should be able to agree on.
Multivitamins aren’t a substitute for food or a magic bullet that sanctions unhealthy diets. But in a world where all of us — low-income families in particular — don’t eat like we should, multivitamins are a scientifically-proven way to help individuals meet nutritional requirements. Lawmakers should give Americans the freedom to access these supplements.