Are food supplements being over-subscribed in UK hospitals? ‘No,’ says government


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Hospital table nutrition: Abbott health professional marketing for Ensure Plus targets the elderly
Hospital table nutrition: Abbott health professional marketing for Ensure Plus targets the elderly

Related tags Food supplements Nutrition

The UK hospital system spends more on food supplements and medical food than it does on regular food, a situation that has provoked protest today – but the government says it is based on genuine need.

The Campaign for Better Hospital Food (CBHF) today published a list that detailed the £320m (€384m) the UK National Health Service (NHS) spent on food supplements in 2012 with Abbott’s Ensure Plus milkshake top of the list at about €30m per annum. The second and third most popular hospital supplements were Danone-Nutricia’s Fortisip and Neocate.

Only £270m (€323m) was spent on food that year.

CBHF says the fact hospital food is not regulated in the same way as school and prison food means patients often refuse to eat it and opt for supplements instead.

Nutritional supplements are routinely prescribed to hungry patients who are not eating hospital food because of its poor quality," ​said CBHF coordinator Alex Jackson. 

"It is far better for patients to be nourished by enjoyable food than by pills administered as medicine, and it would save the NHS money too.”

The issue has provoked House of Lords Conservative member Lady Julia Cumberlege to introduce a Hospital Food Bill​ to the UK parliament today.

Roger Clarke, director general of the British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA), which counts the likes of Abbott and Danone as members, said the campaign was misplaced.

While we wholeheartedly support all initiatives to improve hospital food, we are disappointed to see that misleading claims are being made on the value of enteral [non-oral] nutrition. The figures published by the CBHF are comparing NHS expenditure on food ingredients in hospitals with the total expenditure on enteral nutrition, including tube feeds and oral nutritional supplements in primary care."

“The maths is entirely wrong."

Dr Dan Poulter MP: "Nutritional supplements cost a lot more than food but are essential..."


Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter defended hospital supplementation, noting the often medical nature of food supplements dispensed to patients.

"Nutritional supplements cost a lot more than food but are essential to many patients in order to survive, including patients who need to eat through feeding tubes,” ​he said.

"The majority of this spend is for people in the community, so it is completely wrong to say it is about hospital food quality.”

"We agree, however, that there is still too much variation in food standards across the NHS and we are working with Age UK and others on our continued work to support better hospital food."

Nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton said, “it is not fair to condemn supplements when there is clearly a need for them especially among elderly hospital patients.”

“But overuse is obviously not a good idea.”

Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) data​ shows about two thirds of the food supplements purchased were products taken non-orally, by feeding tube for example. Another third were medical foods in the form of pills, milkshakes or yoghurts.

Groups backing the Campaign for Better Hospital Food can be found here​.

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