The supplement industry was estimated to be worth £13.5 billion worldwide. The Foods Standards Agency revealed that 1 in 3 people in the UK take vitamin and mineral supplements of some description. A large US study that reviewed dietary and health habits in 160,000 women over an 8 year period noted that 40% took a regular multivitamin supplement. It was reported at the end of the 8 years that there was no difference in cancer rates and heart disease and little difference in body weight between those who took the additional supplements and those who didn’t. With such a significant amount of time, money and energy put into the production and use of dietary supplements we have got to ask ourselves, do they deliver on their inherent promise of better health?
It makes sense to first lay down what we know or have discovered through science about the important category of micronutrients. The discovery of the previously unknown, microscopic factors that benefitted our health began in the early 1900’s. A Polish scientist called Kazimierz Funk is the first known to use the word ‘vitamine’ which meant vital amines (amines are nitrogenous compounds that Funk thought was in all vitamin like compounds). Since that time numerous discoveries have been made regarding naturally occurring chemical compounds that play an important, even essential role in sustaining life. Today there are literally thousands of micronutrient compounds that can provide health benefits for life.
The first system used to estimate the daily micronutrient dietary guidelines were called the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA). These guidelines were first formulated in 1941 and then revised several times in subsequent years. Today, however they have been superseded by the latest reference value system called the Dietary Reference Intake. A table of these reference values is listed below:
Despite these intake guidelines, consumption of micronutrients is perhaps more complicated than simply targeting an arbitrary figure. Early studies by leading dental scientist, Dr Weston A Price during the 1940’s, indicated that at the time Western populations were consuming 10 times less fat soluble nutrients (vitamins A, D, E and K) than in traditional populations eating nutrient dense, traditional diets. There are 17 known variations within the vitamin B complex. Vitamin C never exists as pure ascorbic acid in nature but is combined with other bioflavonoids, such as rutin. Alcohol consumption, several common medications like aspirin and oral contraceptives also seem to reduce vitamin C levels in the body. There are several isomers of vitamin D that are of such importance that the Vitamin D Council stated that vitamin D should exist within a category of its own and should not be grouped together with other vitamins. There are 4 naturally occurring isomers of vitamin E with alpha tocopherol considered the most biologically active. Whilst the blood clotting factor vitamin K and its variations were discovered in 1929, it is only in the 21st century that we have begun to understand that vitamin K2 has significantly more important roles in health beyond blood clotting. Scientific knowledge of beneficial plant phytochemicals such as bioflavonoids, carotenoids and polyphenols is increasing rapidly, but is still very much in its infancy.
There are many chemical compounds found in both plant and animal foods that are necessary for optimal health. It is unlikely that science has yet discovered all the naturally occurring biological chemicals beneficial for human health. So perhaps there is a potential limit to the health enhancing effects of even the very best multivitamins within the parameters of current scientific knowledge! They may not contain all our nutrient requirements as found in nature regardless of the marketing hype that tries to convince you otherwise. A thorough review of many of the common multivitamin supplements on the market may prove disappointing as many options do not even contain the full spectrum of nutrients we currently know about; never mind those we are yet to discover. Vitamin B complex supplements usually contain about 8-10 of the 17 different versions we know about. Vitamin E supplements often only contain alpha tocopherol and rarely the other 3 versions. Vitamin D supplements usually contain either vitamin D2 or D3 and not the other isomers. Some scientists have suggested that natural vitamin D3 may break down into as many as 30 different metabolites or variations within the body, many of which likely occur naturally in food, but not in supplements. Vitamin D3 has been shown to raise blood levels about 5-10 times more effectively than D2. Some circles have shown that D2 may more easily reach toxicity levels within the body. Despite an improved understanding of vitamin K functions, it is very difficult to find any supplements that contain the more important vitamin K2.
These points should help you realise that supplements can and will contribute to your total nutrition, but science is still a long way from providing for your bodies complete needs! Dr. Weston A Price said ‘Life in all its splendor is Mother Nature obeyed.’ Real food with its naturally occurring micronutrients from the best quality food we can find will provide us with all we need, even the nutrients we still don’t fully understand. A supplement can only do as the name suggests – assist in supporting your diet, not replace the nutrients in your diet. It is only a supplement! A 2006 State of Science Conference concluded that ‘The present evidence is insufficient to recommend either for or against the use of multivitamins / minerals by the … public to prevent chronic disease.’