Fri. May 31st, 2024

We are a nation of pill poppers, with the vitamin and supplement market worth an estimated £1.5billion – but beyond checking dosage, most will give little thought to what else they might contain. So is it time we did?

After all, what we are putting into our bodies is getting some major attention right now. There’s a particular buzz about ultra-processed food (UPF) and the dangers of having too many in our diets. But you may be surprised to discover another unexpected source – your daily  multivitamin.

Secret ingredients

If you read the small print on your vitamin bottle, several ingredients could be unfamiliar. Supplements aren’t simply made up of key vitamins. They often contain items like talc, E numbers and gelatin, which help bulk up or colour the final product or improve its shelf life. 

Dr Carol Granger, a registered nutrition practitioner with a degree in biochemistry and a master’s in microbiology, was part of the team who put together Viridian Dejunk Your Life Report 2024.

She warns: “People think supplements are healthy, and while some can be, others can be as detrimental to health as ultra-processed foods when taken regularly in large amounts.”

Niamh McMillan, Superdrug’s pharmacy superintendent, is more reassuring about the additional ingredients in supplements, which she assures people are tested thoroughly.

“Supplements may contain additional ingredients for a variety of reasons, to provide a carrier for the active ingredient, to improve product processability, to facilitate solubility or absorption, or to ensure stability,” she  explains.

“These are not harmful and have undergone rigorous safety testing before they can be used in the manufacture of supplements.”

While we shouldn’t assume ingredients we don’t recognise are harmful, Aimee Benbow, nutritionist at Viridian, advises us to be inquisitive.

“If additives are used to help the manufacturer rather than add a health benefit, dig deeper and ask questions. An independent health store is a great place to go,” she says.

Tablet or capsule?

If you opt for tablet form, you’ll generally end up with a more processed product, Aimee says. “Tablets require binders and glues to hold the structure together. Capsules enclose the nutrients and ingredients into a shell derived from plant cellulose. Therefore, capsules are less ultra-processed.”

Similarly, the thickener carrageenan can be used to bulk out supplements. “Despite being an extract from seaweed which sounds healthful, research has shown that carrageenan may cause inflammation to the gut lining,” she adds.

Check the colour

Often, our tablets are a brilliant white – but have you ever wondered why? “White tablets often use titanium dioxide to make the appearance uniform,” Aimee says. The same substance is used to whiten toothpaste but recent rulings have cast a shadow over its use.

“The European Food Safety Authority has recently banned titanium dioxide in food and supplements in the EU. The UK has not followed suit, so many products will still contain it,” she adds.

If you’re after a more natural colour, there’s one tell-tale sign to look for. “Capsules containing naturally sourced ingredients will often be more natural in colour: from light beige to green and will vary from batch to batch depending on the season,” explains Aimee.

Pricey pills

Shopping around for supplements can be expensive, but there are ways around this. Vicky Pennington, nutritionist at Boots, says: “Consider a multivitamin rather than buying individual supplements. Own-brand supplements are often cheaper than branded and look out for discounts such as three for two offers.”

Food first

Ultimately, vitamins and supplements are no replacement for a healthy diet. To avoid taking unnecessary tablets or gummies, Vicky says: “I would recommend focusing on food first and aim for a balance. Vitamin and mineral supplements are intended as just that: a supplement to a healthy diet rather than a substitute for one.”

Niamh adds: “In an ideal world it would be great to get vitamins from our diet and the sun, but it’s not always possible due to lifestyle, geographical location or healthcare needs.

“The Department of Health recommends everyone takes a daily Vitamin D supplement, with at least 10 micrograms of Vitamin D. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, then you may also be lacking in Vitamin B12, mainly found in animal products.”

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