Dr Paul Clayton 2013
There are hundreds of vitamin supplements for sale online in the UK. But which ones actually contribute to health?
This is an important issue, especially as there are now so many supplements sold on-line. In principle this is a good thing as, by cutting out the bricks and mortar retailers, online vitamin supplements tend to be better value for money.
Fortunately we in the UK have a good degree of protection, which is why buying vitamin supplements in and from the UK is generally safer than from abroad. The claims that UK vitamin and mineral supplement manufacturers are allowed to make are subject to strict laws – the so-called “Health Claims Legislation”.
But is a consequence of these laws that we are sometimes prevented from getting really important facts about our health?
Health claims versus health facts about vitamins and other nutrients!
It’s not permissible to claim that a nutritional supplement can treat or cure any disease. To make such claims would class the supplement as a medicine – and there would need to be clinical trials to back it up. That is clearly reasonable.
On the other hand vitamins and minerals clearly do have a role to play in creating an environment in the body where illnesses are far less likely to develop and which is conducive to better health.
Omega 3 health claims for UK vitamins online
For example, there is overwhelming evidence from the literature that Omega 3 fish oil is heart-protective, helps to protect brain function and has a role to play in reducing the risk of cancer. But few people have sufficient Omega 3 in their normal diet. I calculate you would need to eat 3-4 portions of oily fish such as herring, mackerel, sardines or wild salmon (not farmed) a week.
But the only health claims that are permissible for Omega 3 are for the main constituent elements in fish oil which are EPA and DHA. A manufacturer can claim that ‘EPA and DHA contribute to the normal functioning of the heart’ – and only when there is a combined minimum intake of 250mg per day.
This seems to be too narrow a view of the health benefits of Omega 3. Because my analysis of hundreds of studies clearly indicates that Omega 3 and its EPA/DHA components have a strong anti-inflammatory effect.
This would not only help protect the heart but also the brain and indeed joints, because inflammation is not just a risk for heart health but for the health of all the other organs. So I don’t believe the allowable health claim gives the consumer the full picture. [And the evidence from my own research is that 250mg of EPA/DHA a day is too low – it needs to be at least 500mg.]
What about other nutrients from fruits and vegetables that are not vitamins?
There is solid evidence to support the importance of polyphenols and flavonoids to our long-term health. These are some of the phyto-nutrients – nutritional compounds in fruits and vegetables – that account for the protective effect of fruits and vegetables.
So much so that the American Cancer Society and many other authorities now recommend nine portions of fruit and vegetables a day! Other important phyto-nutrients are the carotenoids like lutein, lycopene and beta carotene.
But the only health claim currently allowed for polyphenols is for the polyphenols in olive oil. These ‘contribute to the protection of blood lipids (fats) from oxidative stress’. In normal language they are anti-oxidants that help protect against excess free radical damage.
Like Omega 3, polyphenols and flavonoids undoubtedly have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect. And that is important when so much recent research shows that a key underlying cause of age related diseases is internal inflammation.
As Russell Tracy, a professor of pathology and biochemistry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine puts it succinctly: “Inflammatory factors predict virtually all bad outcomes in humans”.
READ MORE on inflammation as a key driver of age-related diseases.
So once again the claims legislation tells only a part of the story. And in quite properly trying to protect us, may also be denying us a fuller story. And there is another unintended consequence of the health claim legislation.
Why vitamins get a mixed press in the UK
The most common health supplement on sale online in the UK today is an A-Z vitamin and mineral pill at RDA levels. RDA means Recommended Daily Amounts.
Why are these one-a-day vitamin supplements so popular? Because most of the vitamins and minerals in them are supported by research that shows they prevent deficiency – just as vitamin C will prevent scurvy. (Except that scurvy is not a very common disease!)
This allows health claims such as:
‘Vitamin B2 contributes to the normal functioning of the nervous system’, and
‘Vitamin B12 contributes to normal psychological function’
But I don’t think these claims are very helpful to anyone trying to make an informed choice about which is the best supplement to take. More seriously, preventing deficiency, whilst clearly desirable, is NOT necessarily the same as reducing the risk of declining health as you get older.
Premier health research university survey of vitamins
The largest-scale research on vitamins and minerals undertaken is probably the Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, USA) survey. It concluded that there was very little evidence that one-a-day vitamin and mineral supplementation had any noticeable effect on long term health – although most people presumably take them with that hope.
This survey was the trigger for press headlines like “Vitamins are a waste of money”.
I am not surprised that the Johns Hopkins survey was negative. One-a-day vitamin and mineral supplements are only designed to prevent you from becoming deficient in a quite limited range of nutrients. They were never designed to counteract inflammation – now seen as a driver of long term health problems. Only anti-inflammatory nutrients have that role.
The conclusion is that a supplement designed to make a serious impact on your long term health would not stop at just vitamins and minerals. It would add anti-inflammatory nutrients like Omega 3 and polyphenols and carotenoids. In fact it would logically add certain other nutrients for which there is very convincing evidence.
The comprehensive nutritional supplement that I helped to design is called NutriShield. Although it has not been subjected to a pharmaceutical-type clinical trial, it has been cell-tested, which is recognised scientific methodology, and has proved to have clear and significant anti-inflammatory effects. The thousands of users who have been taking it for over 10 years will testify to its substantial positive health benefits, too.