Nutrition in a tablet seems to be the go to for all our health concerns. Stroll down your local pharmacy or supermarket aisle and you’ll see them in colourful abundance. More than half the population are popping supplement pills with many not understanding their true impact.
Supplements can be taken in a pill, capsule, powder or liquid form. They’re designed to mimic the way natural nutrients act in our body. It’s unclear how well synthetic nutrients are absorbed. When you consume whole food, you consume a diverse array of vitamins, minerals co-factors and enzymes that allow for optimal use by the body.
The majority of supplements are made synthetically in factories using chemical processes. Increasingly, this is occurring offshore in countries such as China. The cheaper your supplement the more likely that it contains inferior material. When a vitamin is marked as natural it only needs to contain 10% of the natural product.
Synthetic supplements can be made from a variety of products and then altered chemically to produce a vitamin or mineral. Vitamin B1 is derived from coal tar; Vitamin D from wool oil and Vitamin C from corn or rice starch. Supplements don’t receive the same amount of testing and regulation as prescription drugs.
Check if your supplement contains more natural ingredients by looking for 100% plant or animal based on the label. Natural supplements will usually list foods sources. Supplements that list nutrients individually and use names like ascorbic acid for Vitamin C are very likely to be synthetic. Follow the correct dosage so you don’t put yourself at risk of side effects.
Vitamin injections are being increasingly used. These infusions are marketed to vulnerable people with chronic diseases, cancer or those with frenetic lifestyle by alternative practitioners. There’s no scientific evidence behind these injections. This market is a lucrative one which doesn’t demonstrate a therapeutic or preventative effect.
Dietary guidelines advise that nutritional needs should be met through diet. This is because whole foods are complex and we’re still identifying all their micronutrients. Food has fibre and antioxidants which vitamin and mineral supplements don’t. These are vital for our well-being and long-term health. Food is also now often fortified to cover essential nutrients that we may be lacking.
There is no clear evidence that synthetic nutrients are beneficial for healthy, well-nourished people. However, there are certain groups who may benefit. Pregnant and breastfeeding women who usually require increased doses of vitamins and minerals - particularly folic acid. Elderly people who are at risk of vitamin D deficiency and require more vitamin B12 and calcium for bone health.
Other people that may benefit are vegans or those who don’t eat well and consume fewer kilojoules than required. Also, those that don’t obtain two to three servings a week of seafood may require an Omega-3 tablet. Medical conditions where the body doesn’t absorb or use nutrients effectively may also require a supplement. See a GP or dietitian before you decide to self-medicate with a supplement.
Taking tablets to supplement your diet can be dangerous. Fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K can be toxic as our body doesn’t excrete excess levels. Excess Vitamin B-3 tablets may result in an increased appetite and impaired glucose tolerance and a build-up of folic acid via supplements has been linked to cancer.
Capsules can be coated in methylene chloride which is a carcinogen or animal gelatin which may include diseased tissue. Children’s vitamins and minerals are increasingly manufactured using food colour additives. As we purchase more supplements online we also increase our danger of ingesting pills that are contaminated with heavy toxic metals such as lead, mercury or arsenic.
Supplements can never replace a healthy balanced diet. If you’re finding it difficult to cover all your food groups, then I would suggest eating more fortified foods in moderation. If your doctor diagnoses you with a nutritional deficiency, then obviously you need a supplement. For the rest of us – take your nutrients in the form of a nutritious meal.