Are nutritional supplements safe?

This morning, like pretty much every morning for the last decade, I downed a judicious collection of nutritional supplements along with my breakfast. Recently, however, I was quite alarmed to read a report from the Government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) which contained seemingly dire warnings about the potential for food supplements to put us at risk of a range of undesirable conditions including anaemia, osteoporosis and neurological damage. Taken at face value, the report gives the impression that vitamin pill-popping is akin to playing Russian roulette: while we may get away unscathed, there’s always a risk that dosing up on nutrients might misfire spectacularly and have catastrophic consequences for our health.

Personally, I welcome any information that helps us make informed decisions about supplement taking. I subscribe to the view that anything we swallow, natural or otherwise, has at least some potential to do harm. However, a thorough reading of the FSA’s report reveals that its recommendations are somewhat over-cautious, and often out of step with both science and common sense. One example of this concerns vitamin C. Though non-toxic, very high doses of vitamin C can cause loosening of the bowels in some individuals. Because of this, the FSA has recommended that no more than 1000 mg (1g) of supplemental vitamin C be consumed each day. This seems unnecessarily draconian to me. After all, many of us will be familiar with the gastrointestinal upset that can come after a curry, but I don’t see Government agencies clamouring to clamp down on the amount of madras and vindaloo we consume.

Another nutrient that caught the FSA’s eye is vitamin B6, high doses of which are said to have the potential to bring on neurological symptoms. A stack of research suggests that humans can safely take at least 200 mg of B6 per day in the long term. Despite this, the FSA recommend a maximum daily dose of just 10 mg but singularly fail to quote any good evidence to justify why. (Curiously, in the United States, the recommended maximum daily dose of B6 is 100 mg.) While it’s always possible to invite problems by mega-dosing with nutrients, a wealth of evidence shows that taking over-the-counter supplements in accordance with the instructions on the label is essentially safe.

To my mind, what seems to have got lost in the recent hullabaloo about supplements is a quite persuasive argument for their use. Studies show a distinct decline in the levels of key nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and iron found in our fresh produce over the last 60 years. The Government’s own statistics show that UK adolescents are unlikely to get the recommended amounts of nutrients such as calcium, magnesium or zinc from their diets. In addition, significant numbers of men and women men in the UK eat diets deficient in vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium and zinc.

Coupled with this, is a body of evidence that shows that taking nutritional supplements might reduce the risk of conditions such as heart disease, stroke, breast cancer, colon cancer and cataract. There is evidence that supplement-taking can reduce our susceptibility to infection, and have profound effects on mood and behaviour too. All in all, it seems that taking additional vitamin and minerals is a valuable adjunct to (though not a replacement for) a healthy diet. I, for one, won’t hesitate to get my supplementary benefits each morning.

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