Are vitamin supplements actually bad for us?

We spend millions on them, yet mounting scientific evidence says they offer few benefits – and may even shorten our lives. So are any worth taking? Rob Sharp reports

Next time you visit your local chemist, pause in the aisle containing vitamin supplements, and take in the quantities and varieties of pills and potions on offer. Tiny boxes and bottles stretch as far as the eye can see, affirming that even in these cash-strapped times, the gorging of such "miracle cures" continues to be big business.

But as the UK population continues to shell out millions annually on vitamin supplements, the scientific evidence supporting their efficacy is waning. Earlier this month, US scientists discovered that taking vitamins A and E does not lower your risk of cancer, one of the supposed major benefits of taking them.

"There have been a number of previous studies that have suggested that vitamin E and vitamin C might be important in the prevention of cancer," says Dr Howard Sesso, one of those involved in the recent research. "The lack of an effect that we observe for vitamin E or C on cancer does convince us that these particular doses that we tested really have no role for recommendation for cancer prevention," continues the academic. The clinical trials he oversaw involved nearly 15,000 American men.

Another recent study, part-funded by German chemicals firm BASF, whose products include vitamins, working in association with Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, discovered that there were no significant effects on rates of heart disease after taking vitamins E and C. Two months ago, a major trial studying whether vitamin E and selenium (which, among other things, helps regulate hormone metabolism in the thyroid) could lower a man's risk of prostate cancer ended amid worries that such treatments may do more harm than good. As if that were not enough, doctors at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre have warned that vitamin C seems to protect not only healthy cells, but cancer cells, too.

So should we be taking vitamin supplements at all? "We say that people don't need to take vitamin supplements to have a healthy balanced diet. The only situation in which you should have to take vitamin supplements is if you are elderly or suffering from a long-term illness. People should address whether they have a healthy diet rather than seeing vitamins as a complete solution," says Heather Caswell, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation.

"People get a lot of vitamins from food," adds health expert and author Oliver Gillie. "The exception is, of course, if you have too many things in your diet that are vitamin-depleted because they are totally refined. This includes cake and biscuits, which have large amounts of refined starches in them. On the other hand, if you are eating brown bread and you are consuming lots of vegetables, and a certain amount of meat and eggs, you will be OK."

If the evidence against supplements is rapidly becoming insurmountable, why do people keep taking them? Well, some supplements still have proven advantages for people's health. Vitamins such as B12 – that are good for facilitating normal functioning of the brain and nervous system – are still believed by some to have benefits for women of child-bearing age and the elderly. Furthermore, calcium and vitamin D in women over 65 appear to protect the health of the bones of those taking them.

People seem to experience the placebo effect more than ever with vitamins – thinking that the more they spend, the more they are able to stave off the worst effects of disease and age. The general belief is that they boost the body's ability to mop up cancer-and-heart-disease-causing free radicals.

In some cases, in the UK at least, there is increasing evidence that some vitamins do have benefits. "Vitamin D is different," adds Gillie. "A healthy person normally gets 90 per cent of the vitamin D they need from the sun. Unless you are an Eskimo or a Scottish fisherman living 100 years ago where you ate fish every day, then you can't get enough from your diet." A lack of vitamin D has been linked to increased rates of cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, depression and schizophrenia.

Today, top Scottish doctors are meeting to discuss how to deal with the fact that, due to the country's northerly location and consequent lack of sunlight, large swathes of its population are not getting enough of the vitamin, which is believed to support the healthy operation of organs.

"I am going to a conference in Edinburgh called by Scotland's chief medical officer, Dr Harry Burns, who is concerned with the low levels of vitamin D in the Scottish population. It is an extreme case in the industrial world. In places like Glasgow there is so little ultraviolet light that people are in drastic need of vitamins. They are in an extreme situation because of their maritime climate. Scotland has got more cases of multiple sclerosis [which is believed to be naturally inhibited by vitamin D] than any other country in the world."

But there's now increasing evidence that taking too much of some vitamins can cause harm to people's health. Recent studies – one by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine – have shown that taking large amounts of vitamin E with other vitamins results in a 6 per cent higher risk of premature death. Another study, reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, of 540 patients showed that cancer recurrence rates were higher among vitamin users than among non-users. There seems to be increasing evidence that the death knell for certain vitamin supplements has now well and truly been sounded. Could it be time to step out of the chemist's and back into the kitchen?

Complete meals: How to get your daily dose

Vitamin A

Liver, full-fat dairy products, spinach, broccoli, tomato juice, peppers and watercress. Orange things, such as mango, dried apricots, butternut squash, carrots, sweet potatoes and pumpkin tend to be good sources of this vitamin.



Vitamin D

Oily fish (salmon, sardines, pilchards, tuna, mackerel, trout or herring), dairy products and eggs. Also exposure to sunlight.



Vitamin E

Broccoli, nuts, soya beans, brussels sprouts, spinach and eggs. Some believe vitamin E is destroyed by heat, so try to eat your vegetables raw or lightly cooked.



Vitamin C

Citrus fruits and juices, kiwi fruit, strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes and peppers.



Vitamin B

Vitamin B1 is found in whole grains, flour and bread and green leafy vegetables; Vitamin B2 is found in eggs, liver, milk, and cheese; B3 is in protein-rich foods like meat, liver and peanuts; B5 is in chicken, eggs, beef and broccoli;

B6 is in fish, chicken and wholegrain cereals; B9 is in raw fruit as well as yeast and liver and B12 is in fish, dairy produce, meat and yeast extract.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
News
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine