The news (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) has been full of reports about how our food in Britain is becoming less nutritious and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain a full set of minerals and vitamins through the food we buy in supermarkets. I have been told by several people that this is the reason why it is so important to take supplements. Can this be true? If so then it is truly shocking! We can no longer feed ourselves! What is going on here?
I’ve always thought that the best way to get your minerals and vitamins was to eat a varied and balanced diet, rather than take dietary supplements. I further believe that the major source of information about the need to take supplements comes only from the big business interests behind the ‘health fraud’ industry.
First, the Food Commission is a consumer lobby group involved in doing consumer surveys and publishing ‘thought leadership’. It does not in itself publish peer-reviewed research. Like all such groups, it has an agenda, and one that I probably broadly agree with. Nonetheless, given this, one should always be cautious in examining its claims.
The report in itself suggests that several foods (meat and dairy) have lower levels of minerals than the same foods had in the 1920s. There are several problems with this analysis:
- If this is indeed true, there is nothing in this report to suggest that the levels have fallen to dangerous levels. Is it still likely that a varied and balanced diet will supply most peoples’ needs? The report declines to comment.
- There have been several criticisms of the methodology of this research (comparing government tables, the best part of a century apart). Analytical methods have changes enormously over this time and there is no correction for biases that will have been introduced as a result. (Remember the famous iron-in-spinach myth?)
- The report goes on to show that 8% of women might be mineral deficient but (this is the important bit) the report does not say that this is a result of the (alleged) lower mineral levels in food. This could be down to these women just having very poor diets. This is to be expected, as we know some people do not eat well and there is no attempt to correct for this. This is either a little disingenuous or just plain not rigorous enough. The report allows the connection to be made in the readers mind – but does not state the connection itself.
So, not very convincing then. So what else does the Food Commission say on this subject then? Interestingly, it also publishes a report on vitamin and mineral fortification in diets (as promoted by many major brands, e.g. Nestle) and goes on to widely condemn the practice. One of the key findings in this report is that such practices are a subject of concern since it “promote[es] the concept of added nutrients as improving health, versus promotion of an overall healthy diet.” In other words, the Food Commission says that you should eat a healthy diet; don’t rely on added supplements.
It would appear to be case closed, but the story gets a lot better.
Why did the Food Commission publish this report? Who did the original research?
It is stated that the research was done by a Dr David Thomas. Now Dr Thomas was originally a geologist (alarm bells) and has “retrained as a chiropractor and nutritionist” (very loud sirens). Dr Thomas does not work at any academic institution doing research, as you might have thought given the seriousness of this report, but rather has been running a company that sells (drum roll) mineral supplements.
So, could it be that this report was originally just a piece of puff marketing released by a company that would directly profit from people believing it? I don’t know. If it is just marketing then it is a scandal. Obviously many people are worried about their health enough to invest lots of money in unnecessary supplements.
Personally, I think the next time you are tempted to blow twenty quid in a health food shop on unnecessary supplements, you should keep on walking down the high street until you find an Oxfam or Save the Children collector and pop that twenty quid in their collection tin. The added nutritional value that the money will provide to struggling farmers in truly undernourished parts of the world will greatly outweigh any marginal benefit those pills will bring you Â IF you eat a varied, balanced diet.