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‘If you can afford to buy them, then you probably do not need them, and vice versa.’
It is now more than half a century since our pharmacology professor came up with this truism with regards to dietary supplements.
At the time, I was a medical student at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and the vogue for such additions to our diet was in its embryonic stage. Needless to say, it was assumed that those purchasing such supplements were already on a normal healthy diet.
I, like many others at the time, felt that the fad for these unnecessary additives would quickly pass. How wrong I was, for it is now a burgeoning market.
Since the professor's words hold just as true today as they did all those years ago, one has to wonder how this explosion of interest and consumption has occurred. The answer, I would suggest, lies in subtle and clever marketing.
Clearly the manufacturers of these products must have approached their advertisers with a simple brief: ‘What can we sell to the greatest diversity of the population that they do not need?’
It must have been at that stage, perhaps after a brain-storming session, that they came up with the perfect formula while at the same time creating the neologism ‘wellness’, the maintenance of which was liberally interwoven with fear and hope.
The beauty of this approach is to encourage the consumption of dietary supplements for those who for the most part do not need them, when there are many in famine-affected parts of the world who would certainly benefit from some vitamins, if not their more eccentric stablemates.
I must confess that for years I was unaware of the extent of the market though I was familiar with cod liver oil from childhood and later of iron tablets and multi-vitamins. Then glucosamine hovered into view, followed by the more exotically named aloe vera, ginseng, ginkgo biloba and more recently Echinacea.
I now realise, from repeated advertisements, how vigorously the concept of the ‘well man’ and ‘well woman’ are stressed but I had no idea that the coverage was so extensive, including as it does all age groups and most organs of the body. The obvious and recurrent message being that you need these products to keep the targeted organ healthy and by inference failure to take the appropriate supplement puts you at risk.
The beauty of this fear and hope combination is that it cannot lose, for, if despite blanket consumption you still get a problem, the implication seems to be how much worse it would have been without their helpful drop or tablet and how lucky you are that their prophylactic products have protected all your other organs and functions.
While in nutritional terms my old professor's message was generally accurate, he failed to take into account what we now know is the beneficial value of the placebo. Repeated studies have demonstrated that for many of the trivial, and even for some of the not-so-trivial, afflictions to which the body is heir, the harmless placebo in the form of the dietary supplement, can have a significant beneficial effect.
I suffer from the odd twinge in the joints and wouldn’t be above taking something harmless which makes me feel better. I suppose the question then is whether something still works as a placebo when you have expended 600 words doubting whether it has any benefit.
Peter Docherty is a retired consultant ophthalmologist from Derby
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