Coloured powders, capsules and tablets: Who really needs nutritional supplements (and when)
Vitamin A capsules, iron tablets, vitamin C powder: food supplements are now a dime a dozen. But what do we really need? We asked three experts.
In Switzerland, every second person takes food supplements, writes the BLV, the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office. Yet we know little about the colourful powders, capsules and tablets. Nevertheless, many people swear by them. Others condemn them. The truth, as so often, lies somewhere in between. We get to the bottom of the dietary supplement trend. Spoiler: Self-medication is not a good idea. But from the beginning:
Why are nutritional supplements experiencing such hype?
"In recent years, health has become deeply anchored in our consciousness as a megatrend and has become synonymous with a high quality of life," says nutritionist Dr Marlies Gruber. No wonder, then, that business with the colourful capsules is booming: in Switzerland, sales in the vitamins & minerals segment will amount to about 109.20 million euros in 2022, reports statista.com. For 2027, a market volume of 135.7 million is forecast, which corresponds to an annual sales growth of a good four percent. In neighbouring Germany, too, food supplements are popular and are being bought more and more often, not least because of Corona: in the pandemic, sales in the industry have risen from about 1 to 1.6 billion euros, knows Daniela Krehl, spokeswoman for the Verbraucherzentrale Bayern.
But did you know this: tablets and pills are not actually allowed to make you healthy? "Only medicines whose effects and interactions have been proven by studies are allowed to do that," says consumer advocate Krehl. Food supplements, on the other hand, are considered food. In the EU, the so-called Health Claims Regulation regulates which health claims manufacturers are allowed to print on the label and which are not. Switzerland also works with Health Claims.
No government approval test for food supplements
. Nutritional supplements are of course also offered on the internet - sometimes with ingredients that are not approved in the EU and Switzerland. What is much more serious, however, is that for foodstuffs - and thus also for all food supplements - there is no approval test and no state control in the DACH region. Expert Krehl explains it with an example: "I don't have to approve a sausage, I can simply sell it, as long as I can prove that it is not dangerous to health." The same applies to food supplements.
And this is a big problem that has been bothering countries for years. Nutritionist Dr Marlies Gruber emphasises: "To date, there are no uniform maximum levels for micronutrients in food supplements in the EU."
The danger here is that some substances in food supplements can indeed be hazardous to health if consumers overdose on them. In Switzerland, there has been a maximum quantity model since May 2020. In view of the complex data, anyone who reads it will quickly conclude that it is best not to simply take powders or pills without the help of experts.
We would like to point out that the Swiss government has not yet introduced the maximum dosage model.
We are convinced that food supplements are a complex topic and a real challenge, both for you as a consumer and for the authorities.
Risks: This is what supplement misuse can do
. Are you still receptive? Good. Let's move on: interactions with other substances and medicines have not yet been adequately researched. On the consumer advice centre's klartext-nahrungsergänzung.de page, you can find out about A for alpha lipoic acid, M for magnesium and Z for zinc, as well as the known interactions, side effects and contraindications of which dietary supplements in detail.
But probably the most serious danger of food supplements is the following: the unintentional overdose of certain substances. For this purpose, it is important to know that our 13 known vitamins can be divided into two groups. The group of water-soluble vitamins includes vitamin C and all B vitamins. These are excreted by the body via the kidneys and ultimately the urine if we have taken too much of them. This means that an overdose of vitamin C does not cause much harm in healthy people. People with kidney malfunction, however, should be careful.
The situation is different with vitamins A, D, E and K. These belong to the group of fat-soluble vitamins - and can accumulate in the body and cause a lot of damage. This also applies to minerals. Dr. Anna Kreil, a specialist in internal medicine, gives a concrete example of what too much of a good thing can do: "If you overdose on vitamin A, you risk eye problems and liver failure, for example," says the medical doctor. But she also says: "If you don't take all kinds of combined preparations on your own and in massive amounts, you don't have to be afraid of an overdose. Her advice: Always stick to the recommended dose prescribed by your doctor.
Eating a varied diet will take you far
. "Let your food be your medicine", said Hippocrates - the ancient Greek physician who is considered the forefather of modern medicine. And his successors still advise this today: "The best supply of all nutrients is achieved by eating a balanced and not one-sided diet," says internist Anna Kreil. So don't always eat the same thing. Because different foods contain different compositions of nutrients. And it is precisely this variety that the body needs.
Since we don't live in a country of shortages, we can confidently choose from a variety of natural health foodstuffs. Foodstuffs have a decisive advantage over fortified pills and powders: they usually contain several healthy ingredients at once. Take herring, for example: it not only contains a good portion of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but also plenty of vitamins B5 and B12 as well as vitamin D and biotin.
Chances: This is where dietary supplementation makes sense
. However, dietary supplements cannot simply be demonised, of course, because: People with certain diseases, in special life situations, with certain dietary habits or impaired substance absorption (resorption) definitely benefit from food supplements. So if there are medical indications and a doctor gives the green light, substitution with drops, powder or tablets is very much the means of choice.
Medical doctor Kreil lists: "For example, menopausal women, osteoporosis patients, people with bone problems or resorption disorders, chronically ill people, people who cannot tolerate sunlight or have kidney problems," as well as pregnant women and the elderly.
Other people who should be given substitutes are those who have a high blood sugar level.
In addition, people who eat a vegan diet do not get enough of the vitamin B12 in their diet - they have to supplement it with supplements, otherwise there is a risk of deficiency symptoms. Particular attention must be paid to this, especially in children. By the way: According to surveys, around 80 percent of all vegans in Switzerland take vitamin B12 supplements.
Pregnant women, on the other hand, are not advised to take folic acid supplements without reason, as this reduces the risk of so-called neural tube defects, such as the so-called open back in newborns.
Vitamin D: Advisable as a supplement in winter for almost everyone
. For older people, the relevant professional societies agree: they should definitely take vitamin D, because at an older age, the skin can no longer produce vitamin D as well via sunlight. This ability can even be reduced to less than half compared to younger people, writes the German Society for Nutrition.
In Switzerland, they even go one step further and recommend vitamin D supplements for a much larger population group. Thus writes the BLV: "Due to the geographical latitude of Switzerland and the associated insufficient exposure to sunlight, around 60 per cent of the population has an insufficient vitamin D supply during the winter months. "Therefore, the authority not only advises pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, babies, small children and the elderly to take vitamin D supplements in winter, but also recommends that people between the ages of three and 60 years pay attention to increased vitamin D intake. This can be done either through diet, fortified foods or supplements.
For those who need concrete figures now, when they look at the results of their next blood count: The BLV speaks of a severe vitamin D deficiency at a (25(OH)DK concentration of < 25 nmol/l or < 10 ng/ml.
Nutritional supplementation is often not necessary at all but it is also not bad per se. Rather these three things: the hype that is unquestioningly made about it, the lack of government controls plus the dangers that far too few consumers are informed about.
That's why it's important to be aware of the dangers.
That's why it's important for all of us to have a blood test once a year to see what you need. This is especially true if you suspect a deficiency or have already had one. But of course it can also be done as a preventive measure or just to make sure that you don't have a deficiency. Your doctor or health care professional will be able to tell if you need to supplement, and if so, which nutrients, in what amounts, and over what time frame. Sometimes a change in diet (or lots of sunshine, but please wear sunscreen!) is the better prescription.
Nutritional supplements: What is what? Overview of terms
Nutrients are organic and inorganic substances that we need to survive and process in our metabolism. They include carbohydrates, fats, proteins, minerals and vitamins.
Minerals are inorganic nutrients. They are divided into bulk elements (calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium, phosphorus, sulphur and chlorine) and trace elements (cobalt, iron, iodine, copper, manganese, selenium, zinc, molybdenum). There are other trace elements for which it is still unclear whether they are essential for us (such as boron, fluorine and arsenic).
Vitamins are organic compounds that are essential for us. We know 13 vitamins: A, C, D, E, K and eight B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12). The water-soluble vitamins include vitamin C and all B vitamins - in case of an overdose, the body excretes them and they usually cannot cause any harm in healthy people. Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E and K. These can be detrimental to health if taken on their own, as these vitamins accumulate in the body.
Vital substances are secondary plant substances that are not essential but can have a positive effect on our body. Example: Lupin is a substance found in tomatoes, for example, that may have a cancer-preventing effect. (Research is still divided on this.)
The adjectives that describe me? Open-minded, pensive, curious, agnostic, solitude-loving, ironic and, of course, breathtaking.
Writing is my calling. I wrote fairytales age 8. «Supercool» song lyrics nobody ever got to hear age 15 and a travel blog in my mid-20s. Today, I’m dedicated to poems and writing the best articles of all time.
These articles might also interest you