/ Food & Drink, Health

The hype over the health claims of food supplements

Array of vitamins and minerals pouring from a bottle

The UK food supplements industry is worth £385m a year. With some supplements not living up to the health claims on their packaging, we could be wasting an awful lot of money on products we don’t need.

Our recent research into food supplements revealed that a third of adults regularly take supplements. This is despite government advice recommending that most people should just eat a balanced and varied diet to get the vitamins they need.

The only people who need to take a supplement (unless it’s been prescribed by a doctor) should be women trying to conceive and in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy (folic acid), children between six months and five years (multivitamin containing vitamins A, C and D), and the over 65s (vitamin D).

Wasting money on food supplements

So why do so many people take supplements, despite not needing them? It’s because they believe they have a positive effect on their health. For example, when we asked people who take glucosamine supplements, 94% said they believed their supplement supports healthy joints and cartilage. However, this health claim has been rejected by the European Union.

Over the past five years, all health claims made on products such as food, drink and supplements have had to be submitted to the EU’s European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Of 44,000 claims made, only 248 have been approved.

Our research brought Bioglan Probiotic capsules, Bimuno Prebiotic powder and Seven Seas Cardiomax to our attention. All made unproven health claims on their packaging and websites. These related to how they help maintain digestive health such as ‘‘helps maintain digestive balance’’ or ‘‘for a healthy heart”.

Healthy joints and bones

Now, if you do want to take a supplement that’s proven to support healthy joints, take a multivitamin containing vitamins C, D, copper manganese and zinc, as all of these have joint care claims that have been authorised by the EU. A multivitamin’s a lot cheaper too – it costs between 3p and 16p a day, compared to glucosamine supplements which cost 30p to £1 a day. Over the course of a year, you could save up to £354!

We’d like to see all ambiguous and exaggerated claims completely removed from all food supplement packaging, so you can feel confident you’re getting a fair deal.

Do you think supplements are a waste of money? Or do you take supplements regularly and swear by the effect they’ve had on your health?


I agree with you Maria.

What is the point? An even-handed neutering of all the points made? Make it digestible.?

What we need it is numbering of comments to make referencing easier and a proper bulletin board where the same subject can spawn several threads each easy to follow. This format is pretty nightmarish given responses to points made can appear anywhere in the entire thread.


Numbering and threading would be good, but many of the conversations don’t get long enough to merit huge changes. Only when they mention quackery :o)


Guy – you are correct that the vast majority of Conversations have a small number of responses however as one does not know ahead of time which are going to generate comments perhaps it is sensible to number from the beginning.

If you have wished to follow up some of the remarks about duff appliances I cannot quote you particular comments as there again there are no numbers. You may feel quite miffed if I gave a link where there are 43 comments but I cannot identify which one I am talking about.

You will also note that Which? did not date the recent page on Washing at 60C which I find highly irritating I wonder why they do it? What reason is there not to date pages?

Is it something to do with reactive testing? This article from mid-July:


Hi Diesel and Guy, thanks for the suggestions. I can see how numbered comments like on forums would help.

We do have an option that you can use – each comment has its own number and its own link. You can find this by copying the link on the ‘time’ of your comment.

EG. Here’s yours Disiel: Posted 5 September 2013 at 10:55 am https://conversation.which.co.uk/energy-home/food-supplements-health-claims-joint-health-probiotics/comment-page-2/#comment-1335077

You can pop these links into comments or bookmark them to help you join in at the right point. So we could discuss L2’s comment by clicking here. Hope that’s of some help.


Patrick – Thanks for the insight on how to link. Unfortunately though it is hardly intuitive and though I can see its great value across threads I do wonder for a lot of people simply numbering would be adequate. In a thread such as we have currently numbering contributions would also signal that there are other entries being made in the conversation because the numbering would jump.

The method does not seem to be available on the readers views part of the website which over time may become a useful interaction point for readers and Which?.

” belabela wrote:
The morning after I bought it, there was a huge puddle of water in my kitchen. It leaks when you leave water in it. Unbelievable. I have never spent so much on a kettle and did not expect this kind of problem within 24 hours of buying it. I do not know whether I just picked a faulty one, I would love to see other reviews, but anyway I’m taking it back for a refund tomorrow.
15/2/2011 9:21 PM GST


Margaret says:
18 September 2013

I took a 7 seas supplement for a while…think it had Rosehips and Turmeric in……My knees felt a lot better…..but my orthopaedic surgeon says they don’t work….and told me that there was evidence to say Glucosomine helped……so I changed. The glucosomine didn’t help. I don’t take any now…..I may also add…I do like 7 seas for another reason. Many years ago I fell down the stairs in a sitting position…bumping my way down at speed….it was very painful. My lower back area was numb and then painful for a few years. Sometimes, in an awkward move….I would just literally crumple to the ground in pain. I started to take 7seas cod liver oil in a little cold milk, shaken, in the morning….on an empty stomach….I may have done this every morning for about 2 months….not sure….My pain has never returned.


The article ‘The truth about supplements’ (advertised rather tabloid-sensationalist-wise on Which’s front cover) which presumably sparked off this forum-chat seemed really biased, non-evidence-based and would have been better titled merely ‘A summary of the European legislation’. It failed to point out significant things, such as that the reason many supplement-producers have not even applied for registration is that the hoops they need to jump through for inclusion are such to totally cut out small companies without vast monetary resources. My experience seems to back up comments made above, that since the chemical ‘agricultural revolution’ even soils now returned to organic methods are still badly leached & food is far lower in essential micro-nutrients. I used to think my wholesome veggie-rich diet would be enough, but after I had my first child I was forever going down with bad colds one after another for several years, until I began to wonder about nutritional deficiency. I’m a research scientist so I don’t just gullibly believe all the hype, but I did some reading-up (particularly helpful was an evidence- based book, probably out of print now, called something like ‘Optimum nutrition Bible’) & after about six months of vitamin/mineral supplements my immune system was so much better & has remained so. Also another problem disappeared which had started at the same time but which I hadn’t even linked with nutrition, a sort of extreme ‘allergy’ to the sun, an itchy rash even on slight exposure, which I’d thought must be due to the thinning ozone layer. Much later I read that vitamin deficiencies can lead to it. Back to that Which article. Two points. Firstly Glucosamine and MSM in combination seem to work for me, too: I don’t take them permanently like the vits & mins, but for a few months when various joints damaged in the past from time to time flare up. I guess I must be borderline deficient in something and taking those settles it down again for a few years. Secondly the article’s throw-away jibe at wanting to see Echinacea banned really made my blood boil. I am convinced that stuff works. When I get my once-or-twice-a-year cold, if I remember to take a dose the cold goes (sometimes overnight), whereas if I don’t, it will hang around a bit. Not a controlled trial, but good empirical evidence. Which doesn’t seem to have lived up to its usual standards of evidence-collecting in this article, and has done its readers scant favours.


Not really. The simple truth is that the vast majority of all supplements bought by consumers in the UK are not only completely unnecessary, they make no provable difference to people’s health.

You can tell because the labels say things like “can help support your immune system” – if it actually provably did support your immune system then it would have a much stronger statement, but the Code of Advertising Practice restricts them to claims that can be supported by robust evidence.