Vitamin supplements: who can we trust?

The range of vitamins, supplements and remedies on offer today can be overwhelming. What do we really need, and what information can we rely on? Oliver Haenlein meets those trying to simplify things

The range of vitamins, supplements and remedies on offer today can be overwhelming. What do we really need, and what information can we rely on? Oliver Haenlein meets those trying to simplify things

Health and wellness is big business. The consumer health market in the UK – supplements, natural remedies, vitamins, dietary products, and sports nutrition – is currently worth an estimated £4bn. There are also distinct trends in health-related food and drink products, such as the rise of chia seeds, wheatgrass and goji berries. But how do we know what we actually need? Who do we believe? And how do we stop companies lying to us?

Despite lengthening life expectancies in the west, our often imbalanced lifestyles provide plenty of scope for nutritional improvement. Diets heavy in processed foods are creating numerous health problems. At the same time, those living in sun-deprived areas can experience severe vitamin D shortages, and a lack of iron (anaemia) in women is thought to be the world’s most widespread deficiency. What is more, according to the UN’s World Population Ageing report, most countries face an ageing population, a development “poised to become one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century”. The British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition estimates that even now, the cost of malnutrition in England is around £20bn per year. It’s no surprise then, perhaps, that industries catering for these problems are booming; Euromonitor projects that the European dietary supplements market, for example, will be worth almost €8bn in 2020.

But there are concerns over how some businesses operate. The Dutch journal Trends in Food Science and Technology found that between 2008 and 2015, the European Food Safety Authority approved less than 10 per cent of products’ nutritional and health claims.


Advertising rules around food and drink products come from EU legislation known as Nutritional Health Claim Regulations (NHCRs) and advertisers are required by the EU to hold evidence for authorised health claims. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority regulates products in the UK, also working under the standards of the NHCRs.

Nevertheless, companies seemingly do try and stretch the truth in order to sell their products. Nutrition consultant and Spectator commentator, Ian Marber, said: “We are cajoled and encouraged to improve our diets; now to the point of taxation on unfavourable foods. We need simple, direct and fair messages. There’s enough confusion about nutrition as it is so it’s especially frustrating that so many retailers, restaurants and cafes continue to make ridiculous claims.”

Those at global market researcher Mintel say regulators such as the ASA have been creating a tougher regulatory environment for vitamins and supplements in recent years, including clamping down on misleading advertising.


Meanwhile, research in nutritional science must deepen so that we fully understand potential benefits and, possibly, risks. Indeed, we know little about many supplements and some studies suggest that certain products can do more harm than good. Researchers at the University of Colorado last year claimed that those who take a lot of over the counter vitamins, supplements and dietary supplements can actually increase their cancer risk.

Dr JoAnn Manson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and principal investigator of a large randomised Vitamin D and Omega-3 trial, also sees a problem. She says that while many studies have suggested that supplements can help combat strokes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, they were observational studies and did not test a particular supplement against a placebo in a controlled setting. “Often the enthusiasm for these vitamins and supplements outpaces the evidence,” says Dr Manson. “And when rigorous evidence is available from randomised controlled trials, often the results are at odds with the findings of the observational studies.”

Indeed, she adds that some supplements could not only be ineffective, but counterproductive and even risky.

Buy fresh, unprocessed ingredients as close to home as possible, eat seasonally as much as you can, and cook that food from scratch


Like any industry, smaller players can shake things up, creating innovative solutions, democratising markets and putting pressure on the larger corporations to better serve their consumers.

Fortunately, consumer health seems to be experiencing such disruption. Euromonitor data shows that leading players Reckitt Benckiser, McNeil Consumer Healthcare and GlaxoSmithKline are losing market share, with dynamic smaller companies experiencing success. Typically, these companies focus on ‘younger’, more niche product areas, and exploit different channels such as internet retailing.

Millions of us now seek to improve our health with specialist products, and navigating these marketplaces can clearly be a confusing exercise. Investigative journalist and author of seven books about the food industry, Joanna Blythman, says that not only do companies mislead us with health claims, but flawed government advice about diet also encourages people to eat the wrong foods. She singles out the Eatwell Plate, a visual summary of the main food groups and their recommended proportions for a healthy diet.

“The Eatwell Plate has essentially been written by the food industry since the 1950s, based on science that either never existed or has now been shown to be wrong. We’re dealing with a 1950s idea of health which has been taken by big food companies and used to sell a whole raft of products which really are not good for us,” says Blythman.

A growing body of evidence, including advice from the National Obesity Forum, suggests that NHS guidelines on carbohydrate and fat intake, are not conducive to good health. In fact, they may be making us fatter. Blythman believes the relationships between public health advisors and food company representatives are too close, and that large, grain-producing companies have too much influence on government policy.

Maintaining a healthy body through what we eat is quite simple, she adds: “You have to buy fresh, unprocessed ingredients and you have to buy them as close to home as possible, eat seasonally as much as you can, and cook that food from scratch. There’s now this whole industry of labelling, health claims, nutrition boxes, traffic lights and people are buying more and more complex, processed, multi-ingredient products. It’s information overload.”


Founder of Viridian Nutrition Cheryl Thallon

Founder of Viridian Nutrition Cheryl Thallon

Putting food first

Cheryl Thallon, founder of ethical health brand Viridian Nutrition, also believes that health starts with a good diet, and being informed. “I certainly believe in food first,” she says. “Eat a great organic diet and avoid stress and pollution and, providing you have no underlying health issues, you will need few or no supplements. However, even the government recommends multivitamins, vitamin D and folic acid to various groups.”

Many fit into this category: smokers, drinkers, those who are trying to lose weight, pregnant women, people who exercise frequently, the elderly, those on restricted diets, vegans, vegetarians, junk food addicts and those with certain health issues are all recommended to check their vitamin and mineral status.

“Each individual will have different needs depending on their overall health history, diet and lifestyle,” says Thallon.  “We don’t sell, we educate,” she claims. “Health advice is about listening, asking the right questions, then offering the right dietary and lifestyle advice and matching the right product to the person for the right reasons.”

Viridian guarantees its products are non-GM, non-irradiated (products that have not undergone ionised radiation), and are made from 100 per cent ‘active’, additive-free ingredients. Thallon says her company is not alone in pushing the industry in a more positive direction: “There are also a large number of great companies, true pioneers in human nutrition, who perhaps do not achieve the deserved recognition due to a very confused media and public. There are snake oil salesmen trying to make a fast buck, and there are also high quality companies with enormous innovation and integrity.”

There are salesman trying to make a fast buck, and there are also high quality companies with enormous innovation and integrity

Journalist and author Blythman concludes that if you are of average health, without a specific problem or deficiency “on the whole you shouldn’t need food supplements. We should let food be our medicine”.

For those who do need supplements, she recommends people buy them in the same way as choosing food – read the ingredients and avoid poor quality products with artificial additives.

Featured image: Viridian Nutrition. Viridian sustainably sources certified organic kelp from the Outer Hebrides, used in a range of supplements for its high concentration of iodine.