It’s vitamins season, and everywhere you look the manufacturers of pills, potions and effervescent tablets are on a mission to ensure you get all of your Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs). Advertisements, promotions and 3-for-2 offers all aim to get you to buy their ‘super boosters’.

It’s estimated that almost half of us take a vitamin or mineral supplement every day, fuelling an industry worth more than £400m in the UK alone. Although we tend to think of vitamins as a modern-day phenomenon, they were discovered in 1912 by scientist Casimir Funk, who coined the term ‘vitamine’ and proposed the idea that ailments such as scurvy could be cured with nutrients.

Early vitamin B supplements, derived mainly from yeast, claimed to improve appetite, aid digestion, correct constipation, clear the skin, increase energy and promote weight gain. Even then, the medical profession was dismissive and an article in the 1922 Journal of the American Medical Association dismissed such claims as, ‘Extravagant and misleading’.

Despite this, vitamins for added ‘vim, vigor and pep’ perpetuated through the 20s and 30s, culminating in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government creating the first RDAs, to address the malnourishment of soldiers at the start of WWII. The first One-A-Day vitamin appeared in 1943 and the industry hasn’t looked back since.

Good For You?

Yet recent research by Dr Giles Yeo, presented in a BBC Horizon documentary, Vitamin Pills: Miracle or Myth?, challenged claims by many manufacturers, particularly around the effect of antioxidant supplements on our health. He questioned whether we should be taking vitamins when few of us fall into the groups that governments recommend should supplement their diet.

It’s a philosophy that Juice Master Jason Vale shares, particularly given that by simply improving our diet and intake of fresh fruits and vegetables we can gain all the nutrients our bodies need from natural whole-food sources. Natural nutrients found in whole foods can help to prevent a wide range of chronic diseases.

The bottom line is that synthetic nutrients are made artificially in a laboratory or factory and although they emulate the way plants and animals create them, they can never be organic in quite the same way. Additionally, we do not know how well our bodies absorb and use synthetic nutrients. Some studies have shown that multivitamins have no effect on our health, while fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K may be stored in the body and can be potentially harmful.

Nature’s Finest

By contrast, natural vitamins are derived from whole foods – look for ‘100 per cent natural’ labelling and check the packet’s food source which should clearly be plant or animal-based. Words that end in ‘ide’ or ‘ate’ – such as chloride or nitrate – indicate the vitamin is synthetic.

Although natural vitamins may carry a premium in price, they are derived from and therefore more closely linked to the whole-food source that they come from. First and foremost we should look to eat a well-balanced healthy diet to get the vitamins and minerals that our bodies need, but if you are struggling or need to enhance your intake of the good stuff for a short period of time, look closely at the label and ensure the substitute you choose is the closest to nature that it can possibly be. Only then should you consider that the ‘magic pills’ really are worth popping.