3 big myths about supplements
More than half the adult population take supplements, whether it be to support a particular health goal such as combating IBS, relieving menopause symptoms or supplementing a diet. Supplements can play a vital role in people’s health and wellbeing, but there are 3 big myths to be aware of when choosing supplements:
- The higher the price, the better the quality of the supplement. Myth.
- 100% of the NRV / DV is a good sign. Myth.
- The more ingredients in a supplement, the better. Myth.
Here our nutritionists explain these 3 big myths and what to watch out for when choosing your supplements. If you're unsure what your diet is providing and what your body needs, create your Diet Profile for free.
Myth 1: The higher the price, the better the quality of the supplement
While it is true that the cheapest supplements should be avoided because of the low levels and poor quality of ingredients they contain, and in many cases nasty additives, the biggest myth in supplements is that the higher the price, the better the quality of the supplement. This is true whether they are supermarket own label or well-marketed online or high-street brands. Here’s what to look out for.
Overpriced 'lifestyle brands'
If a supplement costs over £35 or $40 for a one-month supply and is only available via the brand's own website, that’s a warning sign.
Hundreds of brands, maybe even thousands, charge £35 / $40 or more for supplements when better-quality supplements are available at two-thirds or even half the price. You may also enjoy '4 things to watch out for when buying supplements'.
One extreme example is a supplement company promotes one of its products as ‘the ultimate supplement’, charging over £190 for a one-month supply. The product page has no information on ingredients and the website uses lots of ‘aspirational’ images. It doesn’t make it easy to see the ingredients because if you were to study them, you would see that the supplement is grossly overpriced. At DR.VEGAN® we provide information on all the ingredients in all our formulas, and which is the least you should expect from any supplement company.
There are benefits to choosing supplements stocked by high-quality health food retailers such as Revital or Whole Foods on the high street, or online such as Bodykind and Medino, one of which is that they will have checked and examined the product and its ingredients, and its level of quality.
Inflated pricing through subscription discounts
A common tactic by brands is to over-inflate their prices for a 'buy once' purchase, then offer a discount of ‘up to 50% off’ when you subscribe. A standard discount of 10%, 15% or 20% for subscribing is normal and expected, and a brand may occasionally offer a 50% discount for a limited period of time. However, if the discount for subscribing is always 30%, 40% or 50% compared to making a 'buy once' purchase, it's a big warning sign. Consumers are misled into thinking they are getting a good deal with a large discount, without realising the 'buy once' price is completely overinflated in the first place.
One company has RRPs over £60 on its products and then offers a 25% discount when you subscribe, bringing the price down to £48. Not only is the £60 price tag grossly overpriced, but at £48 it is still more than 50% more expensive than better-quality alternatives available in a health food store or online. Another supplement brand that’s sold online charges £25 for a daily multi-vitamin if you ‘subscribe & save’ but charges over £35 if you make a ‘one-time’ purchase. At £25 the product is already overpriced compared to a higher-quality daily multi-vitamin and you’re then faced with a 40% higher price if you don’t want to subscribe.
Inflated pricing through multi-buys
Another way that companies over-inflate their prices is through enticing multi-buys. One company, for example, charge £29.99 - £39.99 on most of their standard supplements when you buy one bottle of a month’s supply, as well as giving up to a 50% discount when you buy three or more bottles. The original price of £30 for their supplements is more than 3x the price of better-quality alternatives available online or in store. As a result, even with a 30% or 50% discount for buying multiple bottles, you're worse off.
If you’re new to buying supplements, first make sure you’re choosing the right supplement for you, your diet, your lifestyle and your health needs. If you’re unsure what you need, complete your free Diet Profile, visit your local health food store, including Revital, The Grape Tree or Whole Foods, or email our nutritionists for free advice at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What's your diet missing? Create your free Diet Profile and find out.
Myth 2: 100% of NRV / DV is a good sign
An NRV refers to the absolute minimum amount of a certain vitamin or mineral that an average healthy person needs to get in their diet or through supplements. To put this into context, the first NRV for Vitamin C was set as the minimum requirement to prevent scurvy. As you can imagine, if you’re looking to boost your Vitamin C to strengthen your immunity, fight off colds and improve your skin, for example, you’ll need a lot more than the NRV! It's also important to remember that lots of common and very effective ingredients, including botanicals such as turmeric and probiotics used in premium supplements, don't have NRVs.
NRVs are only set for 13 vitamins and 14 minerals, considered essential for our basic health. Most high street supplements only contain these vitamins and minerals, despite there being hundreds more effective ingredients for your needs, from your energy, immunity and brain health to your gut health, women's health, stress and sleep. If a supplement shows a list of nutrients that are all 100% (or less) than the reference value of a vitamin or mineral, it’s a warning sign. Sadly, most consumers believe that if the list of ingredients is all at 100% of the daily reference value, it’s a good supplement – this is one of the biggest myths in supplements.
The minimum amount of essential vitamins and minerals that we need varies enormously from person to person. For example, the minimum NRV for a smoker can be more than 40% higher than for a non-smoker, and NRVs vary from country to country depending on climate, lifestyle and diet. In the EU and Australia these minimum levels are called NRV (Nutrient Reference Value); in the US they are called DV (Daily Value) and in South Korea, they are called DRI (Dietary Reference Intake).
Do NRVs matter?
When discussing NRVs, we need to note that an insufficiency in any nutrient can be identified by the underfunction of certain biochemical pathways in the body, giving rise to certain symptoms such as low energy or tiredness when low in B Vitamins. A deficiency in a nutrient is caused by the lack of a nutrient over an extended period of time. An example is that an ongoing lack of Vitamin C may cause bleeding gums.
While for some vitamins and minerals it is important to not have too much, there are a number of reasons why you should be concerned if your supplement just contains 100% or less of the daily reference value.
If a supplement contains just 100% of the daily reference value of each ingredient, it is likely that it hasn’t been created by an expert. If it has less than 100% of some nutrients and more than 100% of others, this may be an indication that the formulator has thought about the particular health needs of the consumer. Some ingredients, such as Magnesium, which are bulky ingredients, are also very difficult to have at a 100% of daily reference value in a multivitamin, so in some cases, less than 100% of the NRV is perfectly fine.
If you have an insufficient intake of any nutrient because of your diet or lifestyle, taking a supplement with 100% or less of the daily reference value will not avoid a deficiency. In addition, if you’re trying to address a specific health goal, such as improving the strength and health of your hair, for which Biotin is so vital, simply taking 100% of the daily reference value of Biotin will make little or no difference. This is why the acclaimed Hair Saviour® has 900mcg of Biotin compared to the NRV of only 50mcg. Sadly, supermarket own label supplements and the most popular high-street supplements are created with little or no science or thought and generally less than 100% of the NRV of key nutrients, alongside nasty additives.
NRVs vary by country
It’s also important to remember that daily reference values vary enormously around the world. For example, the minimum recommended level for Vitamin D is only 5mcg in the EU and South Korea, but the NHS in the UK recommends double that at 10mcg per day, while in the USA, 20mcg is recommended as the minimum level, which is 4x the level in the EU. For Magnesium, in South Korea the recommended level is 300mg per day, in Europe it is 375mg and in the US it is 420mg. The minimum level for Iron in the US is 18mg per day, in the UK it is 14mg, and in South Korea it is 14mg for men and 16mg for women. So it’s also important to remember that NRVs / DVs are only guidelines depending on which country you live in.
Some NRVs are set at pitifully low levels by health authorities. The NRV for Vitamin B12 in the EU is 2.5mcg per day and some experts argue that this is why deficiencies in Vitamin B12 are so common, leading to fatigue, brain fog, weak immunity, poor vision and other health issues. Taking a high-quality Vitamin B12 supplement with 2000mcg which is 800x the daily reference value, or receiving the same level via injections is very common among those on a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet and is commonly advised by GPs among those who have issues absorbing Vitamin B12. A level of Vitamin B12 of 2000mcg is not only perfectly safe; it may well be essential for a person’s health.
The most important thing to know is that the NRV / DV / DRI are not targets to meet; they’re the absolute minimum you should get in your diet or through supplements to avoid a serious health condition. And if you’re taking supplements to address a particular health goal, it is very likely you will need a lot more than a daily reference value.
Not all ingredients have a reference value
It’s also important to remember that many ingredients in high-quality supplements don’t have daily reference values. Herbal and botanical ingredients don’t have recommended levels because they’re not classified as ‘essential’ nutrients for human health; however, they can be very effective at helping you meet certain health goals.
For example, Milk Thistle is powerful and effective for detoxifying the liver; plant sterols are a natural and effective way to maintain healthy cholesterol levels alongside a healthy diet; Wild Yam is one of many plant ingredients for naturally relieving menopause symptoms; and there are hundreds more plant ingredients that are effective for a range of health needs. None of these plant ingredients have minimum daily reference levels. Probiotics and prebiotics also don’t have minimum daily reference levels, yet probiotics such as the award-winning Gut Works® are highly effective for combating IBS and optimising your gut health. Prebiotics and probiotics are effective for a wide range of health goals, including relieving IBS, bloating and digestive discomfort.
Myth 3: The more ingredients in a supplement, the better
While the number of ingredients can be important, it is far more important that a supplement contains the right ingredients and the right levels of those ingredients for your particular health need or goal than the number of ingredients.
If a supplement has lots of ingredients at 100% or less of the daily reference value, it won’t be very good. One popular green powder supplement with 75 ingredients claims to be a better alternative to a quality daily multi-vitamin, yet if you know what to look for, you find it has 30% fewer key nutrients than a quality daily multi-vitamin and the levels of the nutrients it does have are up to 65% less than a quality daily multi-vitamin. Sadly, too many consumers believe the hype. Even more shocking is that while the green powder supplement states that it contains ‘no artificial sugars’, it contains Stevia, a plant sweetener that is at least as bad as artificial sugars and is 350x sweeter than sugar! Unsurprisingly, the green powder supplement is not stocked in quality independent health food stores or pharmacies.
As another example, a popular powder supplement for menopause, available in a popular high-street chemist, proudly tells consumers that it has 36 ingredients, yet when you study the nutritional table, you see that 19 of the 21 vitamins and minerals are at 100% of the daily reference value. One of those at only 100% of NRV is Vitamin B12, which is one of the vitally important vitamins for women going through menopause and as explained earlier, a level of B12 at 100% of NRV is pitifully low and will not address some of the biggest symptoms of menopause, such as brain fog and fatigue. Likewise, it only has 100% of Vitamin B6, a vital nutrient for hormonal balance and such a low level will not support hormonal changes through menopause. While this powder supplement does contain 36 ingredients, it doesn’t have the right ingredients or levels of ingredients to effectively relieve menopause symptoms.
Remember, just because a large hight-street retailer stocks a supplement, it doesn’t mean it is of the quality you should expect. It's important to remember that most of the buyers at these large high street retailers who choose what products to stock, are not qualified nutritionists. If you’re in doubt, the best advice is to visit a smaller, local independent health food store or pharmacy and seek advice from the store manager.
Ensuring that a supplement addresses your particular type of diet is also important. One popular daily multi-vitamin in capsule form proudly claims that it has 32 ingredients, which is a lot for a daily multi-vitamin. It also markets itself to vegans, yet it is wholly unsuitable for vegans or those on a plant-based diet because it lacks key nutrients such as Choline and Vitamin B12. Some of the ingredients are at such low levels as to not have any benefit at all, so the supplement company may have added more ingredients simply to achieve a high number that will persuade consumers that it’s better for them. Always ensure that your supplement has the right ingredients and the right levels of ingredients to support your needs.
If in doubt, email our wonderful team of expert nutritionists at email@example.com who are always happy to help and advise.
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