Vitamin or mineral supplements are taken by nearly half of the UK population every day, but what are these pills sold on every high street actually doing for us?
Digging deeper than the eye catching words on the packaging, Dr Giles Yeo investigated on tonight’s programme who really needs a supplement by putting our diets to the test.
Giles delved in to the history of this growing industry – worth £400 million in the UK alone – to uncover how it has become such a giant when so many people in the affluent world don’t fall into groups that our governments say actually need a supplement.
He uncovered the meaning of the words “contributes to normal…” which appear on many supplement packets and asked why companies don’t make this clearer to consumers.
Examining the scientific steps and missteps that fuelled the popular belief in the power of antioxidant vitamins to transform our health, Giles explored the latest science raising troubling questions about what antioxidant supplements may actually be doing for our health.
Fifty years after the vitamin and mineral supplementing craze began, Giles asked if it is now time we took a more rigorous scientific look at these everyday miracle pills.
Giles’ first stop was to Greenwich University to meet with Dr Tatiana Christides.
Dr Christides carried out a small test to see whether different diets impact people’s levels of micronutrients.
Taking part in the test were student Julia, whose every day diet saw a lot of chocolate and curly fries, yoga teacher Hannah, who always makes sure to get her five fruit and vegetables a day, and Giles, whose diet fell in between the two extremes.
After a series of blood tests, all three diets were found to contain sufficient amounts of the vitamins the body needs.
The only exception was Giles’ vitamin D level, which was below normal.
It was revealed a fifth of adults have low blood levels of vitamin D during autumn and winter, and as a result the government advises to consider a daily vitamin D supplement.
When it came to mineral intake, Hannah, despite having the healthiest diet, had low iron levels.
Hannah’s lower iron level is like almost half of teenage girls and women. In this instance the government recommends taking supplements to avoid iron deficiency, also known as iron anaemia.
Children under the age of five, pregnant women and women thinking of becoming pregnant are also advised to increase their folate intake.
The Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA), which represents over 120 UK suppliers, has responded to the BBC Horizon documentary.
In a statement it said: “Despite multiple warnings and advice from HFMA, this BBC investigation unfortunately ignores almost a decade of research from the Government’s far larger (and proportionally more representative) National Diet and Nutrition Survey, as well as advice from the Department of Health, which states that food supplements are an essential requirement for some groups of people with characteristics which put them at risk of nutrient deficiency.
“These groups cover a huge proportion of the population, including infants and young children, women pre-conceptually and during pregnancy, and the over 65s.
“For everyone else, findings from the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey show that a large proportion of UK adults may not be achieving adequate vitamin and mineral levels, because they do not follow fundamental healthy diet guidelines.
“Alongside the fact that just 15 per cent of women and 13 per cent of men are eating the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables, it is important that serious consideration be given to responsible supplementation to maintain good health.
“We should all try to eat as healthily as possible, and supplements are not a replacement. However, supplementation is essential for some groups and for thousands of individuals across the UK, these products also help to safeguard nutritional intakes and achieve optimum micronutrient levels.”