Supplements: who's benefiting?

Some swear by vitamins, while others are still in need of enlightenment , writes Debbie Davies

To 40 per cent of us they are political protesters or people who dislike carrots: then again they could be particles in the ozone layer. But to some of us they are an insurance policy against killer conditions such as heart disease, strokes and cancer. Vitamins are the latest issue to divide the nation, and while committed consumers may understand jargon like antioxidants, carotenoids and free radicals, the majority of respondents who took part in research for Boots the Chemist remain in the dark: 60 per cent of us are ignorant when it comes to carotenoids; antioxidants are a mystery to 64 per cent of us; and 70 per cent have yet to be enlightened by free radicals, with two out of five respondents believing they are political protesters.

Those in the biggest camp, the non users, accept the views of Dr Roger Whitehead, director of the Medical Research Council's Dunn Nutrition Centre. The centre advises the Government on the recommended daily allowance for all micronutrients, the term medical experts give to vitamins, minerals and dietary supplements. "Our basic idea is that with a balanced diet there is no need for dietary supplements," says Dr Whitehead. He recognises exceptions to this rule, such as women planning pregnancy, but overall rejects the idea that one can obtain optimum micronutrients for health by taking pills. "This is an incredibly complicated story," he says. "We know we require micronutrients because of what happens when they are absent." But trying to understand the effects of their presence, has left us with more questions than answers.

Before public health recommendations are given on supplements, experts like Dr Whitehead would need clinical trials to prove their safety and effectiveness. Can we achieve through supplements the benefits from eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables? Can we replicate in capsules the mirror image, alpha beta structure of micronutrients in food, like vitamin E, when we do not yet fully understand how these vitamins interact with the body's receptors to such good effect? Pills bring with them the possibility of overdose and as the recent arguments over B6 demonstrate, more is not necessarily better. And is it the nutrients themselves, or is it the kind of people who choose such a diet, that explains why they do well?

In the other camp are the users, spending pounds 343 million on vitamins, minerals and dietary supplements last year, according to Mintel, the research company. Dietary supplements, such as cod liver oil, garlic and ginseng, take the bulk of sales at 62 per cent, while vitamins and tonics account for 38 per cent of the market. Cod liver oil is the most popular supplement, followed by evening primrose oil and starflower oil and then garlic. The constant stream of product launches has been a major factor in creating interest in the market. "It's a very young market," says Tim Legge, a pharmacist at Boots. Consumer interest can lead product development. "We are still catching up, launching products for which there is already a demand," says Mr Legge.

The tradition of natural remedies from cultures like the Chinese or Amerindian provides the basis for endless new products. Supplements developed in laboratories on the shores of Swiss lakes abound also. To this, manufacturers have added exotic rainforest plants and most recently the promise of natural beauty. The well-being of skin, hair and nails through supplements is a less contentious positioning in medical terms.

Mintel estimates that just less than a third of us have the vitamin bug, taking supplements at least twice a week. Age is an important factor. Around one in five people in their late teens and early twenties take supplements regularly; by the time people reach their late fifties, and age-related disease becomes a reality, this figure doubles. Age also influences why someone takes supplements. Only 7 per cent of teenagers taking supplements cited health benefits as their reason for doing so. Poor diet was more likely to influence their choice. By the time we reach retirement, views have changed and a third of regular users say they take them because of their health benefits.

Irrespective of age, very few people take supplements on doctor's advice. After all, we classify supplements as a food not a drug. But four years ago, 20 per cent of those taking supplements did so on their doctor's advice compared with less than one in 10 today, according to Mintel. Grocery retailers are more enthusiastic about supplements than chemists, according to Mintel. Between 1994 and 1996, shops like Asda and Tesco saw an enormous 41 per cent rise in sales; only CTNs and mail order enjoyed faster growth.

Doctors may no longer be consulted, but advertising and PR have become major influences on the market. Expenditure on advertising has risen by 87 per cent over the past four years and relaxation in the rules governing advertising has meant campaigns can target consumers other than the elderly, the parents of growing children and pregnant or breastfeeding mothers. So Seven Seas, the market leader with 26 per cent of sales, has targeted campaigns for cod liver oil at teenagers, hoping to extend its appeal beyond traditional consumers who use it because of its claims to benefit suppleness as they get older and face arthritis.

Media coverage also has a marked effect on sales. "A product has only to be recommended by Good Housekeeping for its sales to increase," says Mr Legge. He believes media comment has a greater effect on the market than medical advice, something manufacturers are well aware of. All the major companies run extensive PR campaigns aimed at journalists. Faced with adverse publicity, as had been the case recently over B6 and the legality of health claims made on packaging, the industry is quick to organise lobbying in its defence. Seven Seas, by far the biggest player, offers journalists who are writing about supplements free supplies as well as ready-made question and answer sheets and extensive data on the market. This is widely quoted, both by the media and other manufacturers and retailers. This tends to inflate the market, when compared to data from an independent source, such as Mintel. For example, Seven Seas estimates the market will be worth pounds 500m by the year 2001, compared to Mintel's estimate of pounds 436m. In its latest report on the market, Mintel concludes that around 30 per cent of us are regular users of vitamins, compared with the 44 per cent of women, and 33 per cent of men, quoted by Tesco, figures which are based on Seven Seas' estimates.

Small or large, there is little argument that the sector will continue to grow. Long-term lifestyle changes among younger people are already benefiting the market. The growth in snacking and a tendency to skip meals, which is particularly common among younger people, favours sales on the far from proven premise that we can gain the benefits of a balanced diet from pills instead. But Mintel concludes the heaviest users will continue to be women in their forties, fifties and sixties, with plenty of money to spend and a considerable interest in health and diet issues. Dr Whitehead already knows this is the group of people most likely to take supplements; he also knows it is a group with little or no need to take vitamins, minerals or dietary supplements of any kind in the first place.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Lionel Messi looks on at the end of the final
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Sell it with flowers: competition is 'intense' for homes with outside spaces

Gardens add a tenth to the value of your home

A London estate agent yesterday put a price on having a garden. David Pollock of Greene & Co reckons it can increase a property's value by a tenth.

Spectators at the Isle of Wight music festival watch the World Cup on the big screen. Betting promotions were a feature of the tournament
Lenders have been accused of persuading vulnerable people to borrow expensive credit

Payday loan firms accused of bombarding vulnerable people with nuisance phone calls

Payday loan firms have been accused of bombarding financially vulnerable people with nuisance phone calls, after a debt charity reported that a third of its clients were plagued by the messages.

The foundation proposed that the Government sets up a scheme to help people avoid losing their homes

Mortgages: 'Homeowners could trade down to shared ownership to defuse rate rise timebomb'

A plan to defuse a “mortgage debt timebomb” when interest rates rise is published today amid warnings that 2.3m households could struggle with their repayments.

Current accounts are too costly and confusing, says CMA as it announces investigation into Britain's biggest banks

Competition regulator to investigate market where it's hard for customers to make comparisons and the big banks' charges can be set too high
All the signs have been pointing up for buy-to-let, but there are clouds on the horizon

Buy-to-let: is it a boom or a bubble fit to burst?

People borrowing to be landlords could face the same restrictions as homebuyers, with MPs voicing fears that property speculation may be overheating the market

Moment of truth for payday lenders: Watchdog plans to curb cost of short-term loans

The chief of the City watchdog, Martin Wheatley, spoke exclusively to The Independent's Simon Read about its attempts to control the worst excesses of unscrupulous high-cost credit companies

Consumers given power to choose a green deal

How would you like to be able to choose how your electricity is made and even where it come from? It may sound futuristic and fanciful but the independent supplier Co-operative Energy has made it a reality this week.

'Scrap the trap': calls for change grow as banks are told to play fair with loyal savers

City regulator says existing customers suffer worst rates

Motor insurers divided on proposals for whiplash ban

MPs want medical evidence for claims. Will this bring higher premiums?

British Gas repays £1m for mis-sold deals

British Gas was yesterday forced to pay back £1m to its customers after mis-selling them energy deals.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

    £350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

    Graduate / Trainee Recruitment Consultant - IT

    £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Orgtel are seeking Graduate Trainee Re...

    HR Business Partner - Banking Finance - Brentwood - £45K

    £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: ** HR Business Partner - Senior H...

    PA / Team Secretary - Wimbledon

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: PA / Team Secretary - Mat...

    Day In a Page

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on