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22 Aug 2013

Supplements - are they worth it?

Consumers could be wasting money on supplements

Which? research shows that some supplement manufacturers are making misleading claims on their products - as a result, people could be wasting money on unnecessary food supplements.

Other manufacturers use clever language and font sizes to exaggerate the effect that some ingredients have.

So although only a small minority of people actually need supplements, a third of adults in our survey told us they regularly take them. The supplements industry was valued at £385 million in 2012.

Misleading claims

The most popular supplements people take are multivitamins, glucosamine supplements for joint health, and probiotic tablets and drinks.

However, all health claims relating to glucosamine and joint health have been rejected by the EU. Claims that probiotics improve digestive health were also rejected.

In the past five years, products (food, drink and supplements) that want to carry a health claim have had to submit the evidence behind that claim to the EU's European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).More than 44,000 health claims were originally submitted, and only 248 have so far been approved by the EU.

Supplements for joints

The EFSA panel rejected claims that glucosamine and chondroitin help support healthy joints, help support flexible joints and reduce inflammation in joints. However, 94% of adults in our survey who take glucosamine supplements believe that glucosamine supports healthy joints and cartilage.

  • Seven Seas JointCare Active heavily advertises the ingredients glucosamine, omega-3 and chondroitin on the front of the pack above the health claim 'supports muscles, bones & cartilage to keep you moving'. Underneath, in much smaller text, the packaging states 'with vitamins C & D, Manganese and Zinc' - these are the ingredients for which the health claim is authorised.
  • Optima ActivJuice Juice for Joints advertises glucosamine on the front of the pack with the health claim 'helps improve joint cartilage function'. On the back of the pack it says '...with glucosamine & vitamin C to provide a refreshing way to maintain normal function of cartilage in joints, bone, skin, teeth and blood vessels'. But this claim is only approved for vitamin C, not glucosamine.

Optima ActivJuice and Seven Seas JointCare active told us that their claims refer only to the specific ingredients that they are authorised for.

Glucosamine supplements can cost up to £1 a day. A multivitamin that contains vitamin C, D, manganese and zinc - the active ingredients in these supplements - can cost as little as 3p a day. This works out as up to £354 cheaper a year.

To see other products we found that were misleading or confusing visit our gallery of food supplements you don't need.

Which? says

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: 'Which? campaigned for health claims on these products to be backed up by scientific evidence, so it's disappointing that manufacturers are using clever language to imply unproven benefits.

We would like to see all ambiguous and exaggerated claims completely removed from all food supplement packaging, so consumers can feel confident they are getting a fair deal in the products they buy.'

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