It’s far too easy to keep popping the vitamin pills

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The news that vitamin D may cut the risks of developing colds and flu will come as a boost to the multibillion-pound global vitamins business.

The industry, which includes other nutritional supplements, is one of the fastest growing in the world. It was recently estimated that about a third of people in the UK take vitamin and mineral supplements, spending more than £430 million a year. All this in spite of doubts about effectiveness,
as well as studies suggesting some commonly available products could pose dangers to health.

Politicians and health regulators must take more notice of this growing business but this presents a huge challenge. The industry is fragmented and in part unregulated; there are many small producers vying with established brands. There is considerable scientific scepticism about some of the products but the public keeps buying. Claims about the potential health benefits of a supplement can fall under different rules. Something being sold using a defined medicinal claim would need licensing by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency whereas other supplements may fall under the definition of food, governed by the Food Standards Agency.

This makes it confusing for the public to know whether claims are backed by scientific evidence. There is a growing and lucrative online market in sales of counterfeit vitamins, nutrients and supplements, which the authorities have no clear idea how to regulate or control. The possible contamination of some supplements sold online is a big worry and there remains no meaningful benchmark when it comes to recommended dosages. It is quite common to see supplements on the shelves which contain 200 per cent of the recommended daily dosage of vitamin C. How are consumers supposed to judge?

The public needs more help in making the right choices. Current guidelines are just the starting point. Advice and guidance needs to be much clearer and more explicit, in language people can understand. The latest medical research needs to be more widely promulgated. Health regulators must be given greater enforcement powers to act quickly if a product is deemed inadequate on safety or efficacy grounds. Too much of the political debate has been funnelled through the prism of consumer freedom and choice. This is misguided, given that not all practices are necessarily safe.

GPs need to be much more clued-up about the latest clinical evidence so that they are in a position to help their patients make informed decisions rather than pop to the nearest pharmacy for another pill, no questions asked.