Health supplements: sorting the fact from fiction
Popping pills was once associated with sickness and chronic health conditions, but now it’s perfectly normal to take a probiotic with your morning muesli, add vitamin C to your water bottle and swallow magnesium before bed. According to market intelligence agency Mintel, 65 per cent of UK adults take supplements “daily or occasionally” and by 2021, sales are expected to hit £457m.
While we’re spoiled for choice, deciding which to buy can be overwhelming. Take a quick glance in health food stores or high street chemists and you’re likely to drown in aisle upon aisle of supplements, all claiming to be the ultimate panacea. Throw in confusing labels and conflicting advice, and it’s a minefield.
BEWARE THE EXTREMISTS
When it comes to sorting the wheat from the chaff , dietician Lola Biggs has some sound advice. Her first tip? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.“Don’t trust brands that rely heavily on marketing or gimmicks. Extreme claims should sound alarm bells.”
Secondly, prioritise products with outside seals of approval or evidence of clinical trials. “Certifications such as Soil Association, Fair for Life, 1% For The Planet or Ecocert can all help determine whether the supplement is offering things that matter to you.”
Finally, look at the dosage. “See how many capsules you need to reach your RDA (recommended dietary allowance), assess whether they off er good value and avoid brands that use fillers or binders, as you don’t want to ingest anything that won’t benefit your ‘nutritional pot’.”
If you’re still confused, it’s best to go straight to the horse’s mouth. “I recommend finding a good independent health store with well-trained and knowledgeable staff ,” Euan MacLennan, Herbal & Sustainability Director at Pukka, begins. “Many products contain fillers and binders that act as bulking agents. These may reduce the therapeutic value and may affect bioavailability of active constituents. Given the full facts, they are substances we might not choose to ingest.” Euan adds.
So, while you might save some pennies, it won’t benefit your health. If you watch what you put in your body, it’s counter-intuitive not to apply the same rules to your supplementation. You should also consider the form ingredients are in.
But identifying what supplements contain is easier said than done. In the UK, these fall in the murky middle ground between medicine and food and by law, brands don’t have to list everything – only active ingredients. Lola suggests starting with brands which are “proud of their sourcing or abstaining from fillers or binders, as they’ll be shouting about it.”
Spare a thought for our planet, too. “It’s so important that supplements are ethically sourced. If you are making a conscious decision to live healthily and care for the planet, beware some unsustainably sourced herbal medicines are contributing to ecological damage,” Euan points out.
IT’S A FAMILY AFFAIR
Separating the snake oil is one thing, but choosing the right type of supplement is harder. A blood test will identify certain deficiencies but for others, it’s not as black and white. Take a look at your family history for genetic clues, or consult a nutritionist and it may save you money and cupboards full of pills you’ll never need. Similarly, if you’re downing a daily cocktail of supplements, you could exceed your RDA, especially with vitamins. Use a nutrition tracking app, like Cronometer, to keep tabs on your intake and seek professional advice.
One supplement we can all benefit from (but particularly Londoners) is vitamin D. Sunlight is the main source, but considering synthetisation is reduced by air pollution, and we can only store it for three to six weeks, in winter many of us become deficient. The government suggests supplementing with 10 micrograms per day from October to March, while NHS advice says people with dark skin or from African, African-Caribbean and South Asian backgrounds, should supplement all year round.
There are no shortcuts to good health. Food plays a major part, but supplements are just one piece of a larger wellbeing puzzle, not a magic portal to health and happiness.