Up until 1998, year-on-year sales of nutritional supplements had increased steadily since 1994. Forty per cent of the population was regularly taking vitamins and the amount of new products was growing daily. "We'd finally woken up and realised that humans are primitive organisms living in a high-tech world and if our bodies were going to survive the 21st century they needed some outside help," says Alex Kirchin, technical adviser at supplement company Solgar.
Everywhere you went people were popping pills and discussing the merits of their A, B, Cs. A friend of mine even went as far as to suggest that in 20 years you'd be able to physically see the difference between those who supplemented and those who didn't - that they would look younger, feel better and even live longer. So why, all of a sudden, have we started to doubt?
Many experts believe the vitamin companies have become a victim of their own hype. "When you see headlines saying vitamin E prevents heart disease, vitamin C stops colds, beta carotene stops cancer, what you very rarely get told is that these studies use extremely high doses of nutrients to get results," says Patrick Holford from the Institute of Optimum Nutrition. "So consumers go out, pop a pill containing 10, 20, even 100 times less than the doses used and wonder why things don't happen. It's like taking 100th of an aspirin to cure a headache - you just wouldn't do it, but with nutrients people don't know the whole story. I'd estimate that only one third of people who supplement are going to notice any measurable improvements in their health. The rest aren't taking the right supplements."
We also don't help ourselves. "We've become a pill for an ill, a drug for a bug society," says Kate Neil, nutritionist and lecturer at the University of Westminster. "People believe that by taking a vitamin they can make up for everything they do wrong to their bodies. That they can just take any one supplement of any make and get results, but that's not the case. These things are called food supplements - not food replacements - and if your diet isn't right or you're not replacing the nutrients you're actually missing, it doesn't matter how many pills you pop."
So just what should we be doing to ensure our supplement programmes work? First, say the experts, get your diet up to scratch. Eat more organic foods, eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, keep saturated fat down and stick to wholegrain carbohydrates. Keep an eye on your stress levels too. As Kate Neil explains: "Many people don't get benefits from nutrients because they have digestive problems which reduce absorption."
Many of us don't even know what we're taking so it's no wonder we're not getting the best out of our vitamins. "There are a lot of bad supplements out there," says Marilyn Glenville, chair of the British Association of Nutritional Therapists. "Many sceptics claim that all supplements do is give you expensive urine and if you take pills containing cheaper forms of nutrients that your body can't absorb, that's true." Generally, the more information ther is on the label the better the product. Take time to read labels. You should know what's in the product, how much is in it and exactly what form the supplements come in.
You should also know what you should be taking them with too. Nutrients interact - iron for example reduces zinc absorption while calcium doesn't work without magnesium. Learning all of these interactions is complex - if you can't be bothered to learn all the details take a blended supplement which will already have been balanced correctly.
Don't believe too much hype: "Studies are linear," says Holford "You hear vitamin C helps colds, vitamin E helps your heart. Every time you hear something new you add another pill to the pile. Look at what you're taking carefully. I'd say anyone taking more than five different pills is taking too many."
And finally, like any good investments, give it time. "People expect quick fixes," says Alex Kirchin. "But supplements are not drugs with instant results. It takes one to three months for changes to start showing."
Kate Neil is co-hosting a woman's health weekend with health writer Lesley Kenton on 5-6 June (tel: 01344 360033 for details).
EXPERT KATE NEIL ANALYSES FIVE WOMEN'S DAILY DOSES
Takes: Sanatogen Multivitamins with calcium; Seven Seas Evening Primrose Oil and Korean Ginseng; three herbal medications for psoriasis.
Reasons: Unhealthy lifestyle; to boost energy and combat PMS.
Lifestyle: Ex-smoker; diet low in fruit and vegetables; eats no dairy products; exercises rarely.
Eileen: "I decided to 'health-up' six months ago when my body started to slow down. I work long hours and trying to fit in five portions of fruit and veg is ludicrous. I feel physically better."
Kate: "Not eating dairy may mean Eileen is low in calcium and soya milk contains phytates which decreases calcium. She should eat more nuts, seeds and dark green vegetables which contain calcium - but also the phosphorous and magnesium you need to make it work. She should keep taking the multivitamins and evening primrose oil (combining this with a fish oil supplement will increase effects), and switch to Siberian ginseng which is better for women."
SANDRA HARDWICK 49
Takes: Centrum multivitamin and minerals; Solgar Red Clover Leaf Extract; Boots' Cod Liver Oil; Boots' Echinacea.
Reasons: Age fighting; red clover for menopausal symptoms; cod liver oil for joint problems.
Lifestyle: Non-smoker; exercises daily; easily stressed; eats five portions of vegetables a day.
Sandra: "As you near 50 your body says 'OK, now I'm getting my own back'. My joints are stiffening and the menopause, despite HRT, has made me feel dreadful. My parents died from heart problems so I took anything with a heart label until my doctor said I should just eat more fish instead."
Kate: "Sandra is at risk of heart disease and random nutrients aren't the solution. She should increase her fruit and vegetable intake to 10 portions a day. Also she should swap cod liver oil for a general fish oil supplement. Pollution means that cod liver oil can carry toxins. Red clover is a good idea although Sandra should get her hormone levels checked for imbalances."
Takes: Ester-C vitamin E; Vit B6; Zinc piclonate; N-acetyl cysteine; Maxi-L Cartinene; all by Solgar.
Reasons: Health boosting; B6 for PMS; amino acids and vitamin E as she's exercising heavily.
Lifestyle: Non-smoker; exercises daily; eats a 95 per cent organic, non- meat diet which is high in raw food.
Mich: "So many people struggle around looking fat, old and unhealthy and I'm determined not to let that happen to me. The vitamins I take supplement a healthy diet - I don't believe you can get everything you need by food alone because of intensive farming. I spend and do whatever it takes to get the vitamins my body needs."
Kate: "Mich deserves to be healthy. But she should add a B complex to enhance her B6 intake. She may also be better off swapping her individual anti-oxidants (C, E, zinc and the n-acetyle cysteine) for a ready-mixed product. Out of balance, anti-oxidants can actually lead to oxidisation."
Takes: Usana, a multi-tablet US supplement that supplies every vitamin and mineral plus nutraceuticals like bioflavanoids.
Reason: Suffers from chronic insomnia; low energy; decreased immunity; concerned about cancer and heart disease.
Lifestyle: Non smoker; low-fat, vegetarian diet.
Divya: "Supplements are my insurance against cancer and heart disease, but I'd also like it if Usana helped my insomnia and had the same effect on me as it did on the doctor that's behind it. He's aged 60 and looks 40."
Kate: "Divya should keep taking the supplements but she shouldn't rely on them for her insomnia, which may be stress-related. Her vitamins are well balanced and by taking them throughout the day she will increase the amount she absorbs. She shouldn't, however, take vitamins after 6pm - many are vitalising and could stop her sleeping. But taking minerals late may help - magnesium and calcium around 8pm, for example."
Takes: V2000 multivitamin and minerals; Vitamin B complex; Vitamin C complex; Vitamin E; Selenium; Zinc; St John's Wort.
Reason: To keep immune system in shape; prevent ageing; St John's Wort for stress.
Lifestyle: Non smoker; fairly low fat diet; exercises regularly; high stressload.
Tracy: "I first took supplements when I had shingles last year. I worry about ageing, both in terms of illness and wrinkling, and I hope the antioxidants I take (vitamins C and E, selenium, zinc) will help."
Kate: "Tracy is taking a good range of nutrients for a high stress lifestyle. Vitamins B5 and C are key adrenal support nutrients but she may not need the B complex on top of her high strength multi-vitamin. High levels of exercise increase requirements because cell-damaging substances called free radicals - considered a major contributor to the ageing process - are produced. She should keep taking her anti-oxidants."