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Industry hits back at anti-supplements professor

By Shane Starling , 14-Sep-2009
Last updated on 14-Sep-2009 at 13:38 GMT

The UK Health Food Manufacturers' Association (HFMA) has defended its members against a UK professor who last week poured scorn on the food supplements industry by slamming many supplements as useless or even harmful.

In a statement issued Friday, HFMA executive director, Graham Keen, addressed Professor Brian Ratcliffe’s criticisms, noting his comments denied the benefits food supplements can provide.

“The HFMA was extremely disappointed by Professor Ratcliffe’s comments relating to multivitamins, which totally failed to acknowledge the significant role supplementation has to play in safeguarding the nation’s nutritional sufficiency,” said Graham Keen, Executive Director of the HFMA.

Professor Ratcliffe is the program leader of nutrition and dietetics at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland, and spoke on food supplements in an address to the British Science Festival last week.

"People who take multivitamin supplements are probably just wasting their money and boosting the profits of vitamin companies,” he said at the annual Science Festival.

Waste of time and money

He said taking food supplements was a waste of time and money for the majority of the population and highlighted certain products such as vitamin A that could have adverse effects if taken in too great quantities or in combination with products like omega-3 containing fish liver oil.

While he acknowledged there was no public health problem in the area, Professor Ratcliffe said these included headaches and nausea, osteoporosis, and eye and liver damage.

Overconsumption of vitamin C was also seen as a problem that could lead to stomach problems.

But speaking to NutraIngredients.com this morning, Professor Ratcliffe said he had been misrepresented in the press that sprung from his comments last week, including this one, in that he had referenced fish liver oil which is high in vitamin A, not fish oil, which is not.

NutraIngredients contacted Professor Ratcliffe to qualify these statements last week but was unable to reach him.

Professor Ratcliffe offered no comment on whether omega-3 fish oils could yield heart, brain and other benefits.

But Keen countered that, “just last month a detailed review of research [published in the American College of Cardiology] into the area suggested that everyone should take omega-3 supplements to support good health.”

Ratcliffe said the current UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) position that stated multivitamins were of little use for the majority of the population.

He reiterated his comments that supplementation was useless for the majority of the population and advocated better eating for lower income individuals and families, who had the worst diets and yet were the least likely to use food supplements.

To pop or not to pop…

“Popping a pill should not be advocated as a way to fix dietary ills,” Ratcliffe said.

Keen added: “Daily multivitamins help to preserve intake of essential nutrients as well as being of value to many accepted vulnerable groups in our society.”

“Given that countless government-backed surveys have consistently shown a reticence among the UK population to eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, responsible supplementation alongside other healthy lifestyle choices provides valuable nutritional insurance for millions of UK users.”

Mintel predicts vitamin and multivitamin sales will slide from €155m in 2004 to below €100m by 2014 – a near 50 per cent decline - as niche products such as omega-3s and glucosamine grow in popularity.

“Vitamins and supplements are generally regarded as a non-essential spend,” Mintel said in a May report. “People are finding alternative ways to fight fatigue or maintain nutrition through food and drink.”

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