The holiday season is over. Goodbye yummy roasts, creamy puddings and chocolates. Hello green tea, porridge and nuts. This might resonate if you’re among the many people who make New Year’s resolutions. The point of this blog is not to bet how long people stick to their resolutions but to look at what some consider an ally for healthier eating: food supplements.

What are they? Pills, tablets, powder or capsules that are concentrated sources of nutrients such as minerals and vitamins or plants (i.e. herbal supplements also called ‘botanicals’). They promise a physiological effect ranging from a memory boost to easier sleep or even weight loss.

A rising trend

Food supplementsSupplements are quite popular in Europe, with some big north-south variations. About 20% of European consumers report using herbal supplements. For food supplements in general, northerners top the list, for example 64% of Danes take one. The market is growing fast, especially in eastern Europe. According to a 2015 study from our member APC, Romanian consumers spent 500 million euros on supplements.

What is the frenzy about?

Anyone who’s decided to shed extra weight wants a quick and easy fix. Food supplements are seen as a magic pill that can do the job, saving you from sweating or panting at the gym or on a bike. If you want healthy nails, hair or joints, botanicals can make miracles. At least that’s what they claim, sometimes for quite a price.

‘Herbal’ does not mean ‘safe’

Many supplement users believe in what they are told rather than the actual effect, a Danish study revealed last year. Alluring promises play a big part in our purchasing choices; the problem is many claims found on botanicals are still waiting for the European Food Safety Authority to assess how scientifically sound they are. This evaluation has been at an unacceptable standstill since 2009. It must happen speedily so consumers stop wasting their money on unproven promises.

Most of us tend to believe ‘natural’ means ‘safe’. However, consumers should avoid mixing plant substances and conventional medicines. For instance, women taking hormonal contraception should avoid St. John’s wort – sold to help overcome gloomy mood – as it hinders birth control effectiveness. Consumers deserve better information in this regard.

Most of us don’t really need supplements, provided we are in good health and eat a diversified diet.

A recent French study examined 160 herbal weight loss supplements labelled ‘100% natural’ and found that 40% were tainted with non-natural substances that one can find in medicines. Stricter controls are necessary.

We believe all consumers deserve the same level of protection. While one EU country might classify a given herbal product as a food supplement, another country might treat it as a traditional herbal medicinal product or a medical device. In other words, whether you live in Sweden, Portugal or France the same substance can be authorised and controlled in very different ways.

Special foods need special attention

Our bodies certainly need vitamins and minerals to carry out physical activities. But excessive levels of those nutrients can damage our health. The problem is that there are still no harmonised maximum levels for vitamins and minerals in supplements to prevent risks from overdosing. And less than half of the EU’s countries have set maximum limits.

Herbal supplementsControls need to ensure that when one supplement is banned, it is banned in both the physical and the online world. For instance, dinitrophenol, a fat burner used in weight loss and body building supplements, is forbidden for human use in the UK. However British citizens can still purchase it online. Stricter rules and their enforcement must ensure that only safe products reach consumers.

Public authorities generally advise that only certain groups of consumers should take food supplements. Examples include vitamin D for all children under the age of two or folic acid for women who are thinking about getting pregnant.

Most of us don’t really need supplements, provided we are in good health and eat a diversified diet. But if we really want to take them and believe they help us stick to our January good intentions, we as consumers should at least rest assured that those pills are safe.

This post is part of our nutrition series. Find more in our online kitchen.

Posted by Pauline Constant