Most ‘wasting money on health supplements’ finds NHS report

Most people are wasting money on vitamin pills and other health supplements that do them no good, an NHS report has warned.

The market for dietary supplements and vitamins was worth more than £670 million in 2009, according to NHS Choices, which provides general health information to the British public.

But, in a new report titled Supplements: Who needs them? the authors concluded: “During our work it has become clear that the widely perceived benefits of certain supplements simply do not have enough robust evidence to support them.”

This was partly due to press coverage, partly due to the way they were marketed, and partly due to “the sheer volume of misinformation floating around on the internet.”

The report found that vitamin supplements to be a particular area of wasted cash.

Accounting for almost a third of the overall market, at £208 million, the report stated: “There are clearly plenty of people buying vitamin supplements but, surprisingly, only certain groups are considered to benefit from taking them.”

This included those over 65; those with darker skin and those who were not exposed to a lot of sun – who should all take vitamin D supplements – and all children from six months to five years, who should take a multivitamin (A, C and D) supplement.

The authors wrote: “If you fall outside of these groups and buy vitamin pills then the chances are that you will be spending your money on surplus amounts of vitamins you’ve already gained through your diet.”

The jury was still out on antioxidants, it reported, concluding that research indicated “it would seem sensible for most of us to reply on a balanced diet” for our intake of the compounds.

There was “little evidence” that some weight loss products sold by “reputable retailers” worked, while a review of how they were marketed found half breached advertising regulations.

It reported there was also “little evidence” that vitamin C supplements were “beneficial within the general community in terms of preventing infection” from cold viruses, although the authors conceded they did seem to reduce cold duration “a little”.

However, there was recent evidence that zinc was effective in fighting cold viruses, although it “may not seem worth the expense” at £35 for a five month supply.

While it is recommended that people who have suffered a heart attack eat two to four portions of oily fish a week, it reported that more trials were needed to “confirm suggestions of a protective effect on cardiovascular health”.

Neither was there “compelling evidence” that omega-3 fatty acids helped boost children’s brainpower, the report warned.

It concluded: “Overall, it is clear that we may be placing our hope in products that still require far more testing.”

The NHS Special Report

The special report on supplements aims to make sense of some of the issues surrounding supplements, and looks at a selection of the evidence on some of the most popular supplements in use today, including:

  • vitamin and multivitamin pills
  • weight-loss supplements
  • supplements for preventing and treating colds
  • glucosamine, ginkgo and ginseng for ageing
  • fish oils
  • body-building supplements

So if you want to know whether the marketing matches the evidence, download a copy here (PDF, 4Mb).