IT’S the $1 billion industry that promises to make you feel better the natural way.
But how effective are vitamin and mineral supplements for the average Australian?
Controversy surrounding vitamin giant Swisse’s dressing down by the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s complaints panel for allegedly making misleading claims on health products has sparked debate on the validity of supplements.
While integrative medicine experts champion supplements as an essential part of your daily diet, conventional practitioners fear the industry is nothing more than a slick money making scheme.
Experts say the use of alternative or complementary medicines is rising in Australia.
Australasian Integrative Medicine Association president Professor Kerryn Phelps said she believes vitamins and minerals can offer extensive health benefits if taken correctly.
“These supplements can be very useful for people who have a deficiency and need to boost nutrient and vitamin intake,” she said.
“For example, vegetarians, people who eat a lot of processed foods, or pregnant women can all benefit from taking vitamin supplements. Even children who are fussy eaters can get a better balance in their diet from vitamins.
“While the first line of treatment to correct deficiencies should always be food, the next option is a supplement.”
Some of the most popular supplements are Vitamin C, a citrus bioflavonoids extract which it is claimed can treat colds, and fish oil tablets, which advertise benefits for joint and heart health.
Professor Phelps said many Australians take a multivitamin which includes a mix of vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, D, C and E, zinc extract, potassium and calcium.
But she said too many Australians are pill popping without any understanding of what the vitamins do.
“The wide availability of vitamins means self-diagnosis, self-prescribing, and taking in an ad hoc way in incorrect doses is prevalent,” she said.
“If you are ingesting too much of some vitamins or you don’t need the vitamin you can overdose or become toxic. “Too much iron, for example, can cause diabetes.”
In Australia, the major vitamin suppliers are Blackmores, Swisse, Centrum and Nature’s Way.
Australian Medical Association GP Brian Morton said there was no strong evidence to prove vitamins worked.
“Unless you have a true deficiency there is no good evidence to support taking supplements,” Dr Morton said. “Calls for the ordinary consumer to take vitamins for better health are misleading … We should be getting our vitamins from food.
“What is natural is a piece of fruit, not a pill.”
Dr Morton said complementary medicines including vitamins, minerals and diet aids are listed by drug watchdog the Therapeutic Goods Administration but are not assessed for efficacy.
“It does worry us that Australians are spending billions of dollars on these things when money could be better spent on proven medical practices.”
Penrith doctor and head of Doctors Action Adrian Sheen said no vitamin could replace the benefits of a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Dr Sheen said he was also concerned patients mixed too many vitamins with therapeutic medications, which could be dangerous.
“People don’t usually discuss their vitamin use with their regular family doctor – instead they discuss it in the pharmacy so most of the time we are not aware of the amount of extra pills they are taking, and sometimes they can adversely affect medication,” he said.
Accredited nutritionist and dietitian Arlene Normand supports supplements but said it was disappointing that Australians were failing to get vitamins and minerals naturally through food.
“Taking supplements has become enormous. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t get it naturally because a lot of these things you should get from food,” Ms Normand said.
She added: “It is far better to eat an orange than take a Vitamin C tablet because you will get fibre and other vitamins from an orange that you won’t get from a Vitamin C supplement.”p