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Consumer Report Criticizes Misleading Benefits of Health Supplements

Posted on Sep 04, 2013 by Ruth Loftus

A damning report about the health supplements available in the UK states that a number of manufacturers such as Boots, Seven Seas and Vitabiotics are making false claims about a variety of vitamin, calcium and probiotic supplements. The report criticises some manufacturers for making unauthorised statements about the medical benefits of supplements and accuses others of manipulating the wording and descriptions of their products in such a way which is likely to confuse consumers.

‘Which?’ is a UK based organisation which offers reviews and money saving advice on a wide range of products and services to help the British public make informed decisions on their purchases. The new Which? research revealed some startling facts about the size of the health supplement market in the UK and indicated that the public is becoming dependent on regular doses of supplements. According to their research, over 30 per cent of adults in the UK regularly take supplements. This consumption represents an industry worth up to £385m a year. The Which? report therefore set out to investigate whether people might be spending unnecessarily.

Food supplements are concentrated amounts of nutrients, or other substances with a nutritional or physiological benefit, which are intended to improve nutritional deficiencies or maintain a sufficient  intake of certain nutrients by supplementing a normal, healthy diet. Many of the bottles and containers available at health stores claim that the capsules, tablets or liquids inside aid “a healthy heart” or “improve joint cartilage function” or “improve brain function and mental performance”, but the Which? research revealed that in many cases the supplements “don't contain any additional vitamins or minerals so don't actually have any approved health benefits,".

The report was based on findings from 2,100 UK adults aged 18 years of age and over, who took part in online research about their use of supplements and their understanding of the benefits. The research then focused on several popular supplements to investigate whether the claims made on the packaging were medically accurate. The Which? report found that probiotic tablets and drinks were among the most popular supplements. The research was particularly critical of two probiotic and prebiotic products manufactured by Bioglan and Bimuno because it found that they made unproven health claims about helping to “maintain digestive health”.

The research acted as a useful tool to measure how well manufacturers are working in accordance with the EU’s European Food Safety Authority regulations which took effect five years ago. The regulations were intended to introduce a clear framework for the supplements industry, which had operated unregulated for years. Since the end of 2012, the EU has clamped down on the supplements industry even more after they made it illegal for packaging to feature unapproved health claims.

Following the European Commission’s framework, a huge number of food supplement products have been rejected. According to reports of over 44,000 health claims for food and food supplements that have been submitted to the EU in the last five years, only 248 have so far been authorised, so the EU is clearly helping to filter the market and ensure that food supplements are safe and properly labelled.

Nevertheless, the Which? research found that the labelling and wording of supplementary products could still exaggerate the benefits of certain products, and could mislead consumers. Some manufacturers manipulated font sizes on certain ingredients noted on product packaging by using, such as glucosamine, to imply a health benefit. Likewise, additional ingredients such as vitamin C or calcium, were exaggerated in order to give the impression that all of the products’ ingredients were equally effective.

There was a money saving aspect to this health supplement research too because the authors believed that packaging can lead people to waste money. For example, almost one in five (18%) people who took part in the Which? research said they took glucosamine products which can cost up to £1 per day). Glucosamine is claimed to support the structure and function of joints, and Glucosamine supplements are targeted at people suffering from osteoarthritis and arthritis. Numerous clinical trials show the health benefits of the supplements are inconclusive and contradictory, but despite this ambiguity, they remain popular. To avoid shoppers being left out of pocket, the Which? report highlighted the advantages of a simple multivitamin tablet which can cost as little as 3p per day, and contains vitamin C, which has proven health benefits - unlike glucosamine that has none.

As could be expected, the supplement industry has fought back against the research, claiming that the Which? report is simply not true. The executive director of the Health Food Manufacturers' Association, Graham Keen said that a number of manufacturers of supplements had been making “significant efforts” to meet EU regulations and defended the manufacturers for their level of transparency in terms of providing factual information about what their products do and how they work". The Which? report has received a lot of media attention in the last few days, but only time will tell if their research and reports affects the sale of supplements or consumer purchasing trends.

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