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The complementary medicine claim game – scientific fact or marketing fiction?

This blog post was written by Tess Wilson, a Membership Consultant with Australian Fitness Network. A former competitive swimmer, Tess is passionate about healthy living and the life-enhancing power of healthy, nourishing and delicious real food.

The use of complementary medicines in Australia has increased significantly in recent years. Supermarket and pharmacy aisles are awash with vitamins and minerals marketed to consumers with a promise to temper the risk factors associated with disease, recapture ‘lost’ energy, and ‘enhance performance’. Accessible, convenient and seemingly healthy, it’s little surprise that (propelled by powerful industry advertising) millions of Australians have been quick to adhere to the multivitamin trend. But do the health claims made by the companies producing these products stack up?

In Australia, the advertising of complementary medicines is regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code, which aims to ensure that the ‘mad men’ marketers behind the advertising of these products do not mislead or deceive consumers. According to the code, an advertisement for a therapeutic good must not provoke unrealistic expectations of product effectiveness or imply that it is a reliable substitute for sufficient nutrition.

In many cases, however, marketing gluttony subdues genuine claims, and these products are sold on false assurances. Many Australian household vitamins have no proven health benefit, meaning that many consumers are unwittingly replacing, and at times relying on these products to provide the benefits claimed or implied by these companies.

For example, products targeted at maintaining heart health are often accompanied with a promise to lower cholesterol and sustain healthy blood pressure levels. These products, sold on the value of vitamin E, B, B12, and folic acid for heart health, are not supported by evidence-based clinical trials, or rigorous testing; unlike that which pharmaceutical drugs must undertake in order to support their claims. So how are we to know if a ‘heart health’ vitamin sold next to our Wonder White will indeed ‘reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease’?

Furthermore, the active ingredients in many multivitamins are often at very low doses; so low in many cases that the product becomes essentially useless. In some instances multivitamins targeted at older Australians contain just 100mg of glucosamine, which is not even one-fifth of the 1500mg measure of glucosamine shown to be effective in clinical studies of patients suffering pain associated with osteoarthritis.

While there is a place for supplementation – specific vitamins and minerals, for example, can be beneficial for women who are pregnant or trying to conceive, people on restrictive diets and the aged – the majority of people can fulfill their vitamin and mineral requirements by eating a healthy diet. A balance of protein, grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy and fats provide the vitamins we need for our health; choosing high-fibre foods and fish with omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream and reduce blood pressure.

There is no replacement for healthy eating; a balanced diet is the best way to take your vitamins. It is important to be aware of the facts and understand the limitations of these products and their associated claims. Your healthcare professional can guide you through the right choices and offer advice on what complementary medicines may be suitable for you.
For more information visit the Therapeutic Goods Association website or the CHOICE website

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