NHS report claims supplement users are wasting their money

Leading nutritionists and industry groups have roundly criticised a new NHS report which concludes that most people who take food supplements are wasting their money.

‘Supplements: Who needs them?’, which is being made available as a 34-page glossy booklet, says there is “a gap between perception and reality when it comes to the effectiveness of food supplements”.

The report claims that many widely used supplements “simply do not have enough robust evidence to support them”, and it accuses the media of fuelling “misconceptions” about the value of vitamin supplementation.

Repeating standard NHS advice, the report states that most people will obtain all of the vitamins they need from a healthy, balanced diet. But it accepts there is “good evidence” that certain groups – the elderly, pregnant women and children between the ages of six months and five years – can gain health benefits from supplementing.

While the report acknowledges that supplements are “unlikely to harm people”, it urges everyone to talk with their doctor before beginning any form of supplementation.

The report also suggests there is a need to further tighten rules governing the classification of supplements. And it points out that 80% of claims for supplements submitted to the European Food Safety Authority under the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation have so far been turned down. Manufactures, it warns, “may be forced to remove all unsupported health claims from their marketing”.

But the report has been roundly criticized by health experts, nutritionists and industry groups.

Writing in the Daily Express, GP and health writer, Dr Sarah Brewer, said that the NHS report was at odds with the Government’s own dietary surveys. This has identified several vitamins and minerals where large parts of the population are not meeting recommended levels — selenium, iron, Vitamin A, calcium, magnesium and zinc among them.

She added: “If people want to take their responsibility for their health and pay for supplements why should anyone dissuade them?”

The Health Food Manufacturers Association (HFMA) has challenged the NHS report’s basic premise that most people don’t need supplements. The HFMA’s executive director, Graham Keen, said: “Vitamins and minerals are essential for good health and wellbeing. In an ideal world, our diet would provide us with all the vitamins and minerals that our body needs. But evidence from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that a significant proportion of the UK population simply doesn’t achieve nutritional sufficiency through diet alone.”

He added: “The vitamin and mineral supplements industry has an exceptional record of both safety and efficacy, in the UK and worldwide. Figures published by the Food Standards Agency showed that there were only 11 reported reactions to food supplements over an 11 year period, the majority of them in the lowest category of harm.  Compared to other foods or medicines, food supplements have an enviable record.”

Leading nutritionist and health writer, Patrick Holford, called the report “one of the most ill-informed booklets I’ve ever read”. He told Natural Products that the report was highly selective in the research it referenced, often glossing over key findings that would have led to very different conclusions about important vitamins and supplement categories. He added: “Who funds this kind of pro-drug, anti-vitamin propaganda? I hope not my taxes.”

• A PDF version of ‘Supplements: Who needs them?’ is available here.