Be it an old-school favourite like iron, or a fashionably named blend like Sex Dust (it’s a thing), the chances are that you’ve picked up a supplement in 2020 – or at least wondered if you should. The market for nutrient pills and powders has been steadily growing for years, boosted by the wellness industry; it reached £453 million in the UK in 2019, according to Mintel. This year, however, with the help of a certain world-ravaging pandemic, it’s projected to grow a further 9.1% to £494 million.
‘There’s been seismic change from when we first started out eight years ago,’ says Henrietta Norton, founder of the supplement brand Wild Nutrition. ‘Undoubtedly this year really has speed-rolled that, making people more proactive about looking after their health. But I think the growth of the market is a double-edged sword, because it can be really confusing as a consumer. No longer is there just one kind of turmeric on a shelf – now there are 17 types.’
So how do we navigate what to buy? The NHS advice is to try to get all the nutrients you need via a balanced diet rather than supplements (exceptions include folic acid, which the NHS recommends for anyone in early pregnancy or hoping to conceive, and vitamin D, which we’re all advised to take during the autumn and winter).
‘I wholeheartedly agree that supplements never replace a balanced meal and lifestyle,’ says Norton. ‘But there are lots of complicating factors in that – the accessibility of healthy foods, the way that we cook, the way that these foods are grown and the medication that we might be on. One thing I saw as a nutritional practitioner was a lot of people who were eating very well, but eating the same things almost every day. So the majority of us are not eating a balanced diet – I think that’s where supplements come into their own.’
She recommends reading the labels and looking up the ingredients to understand what exactly you’re buying: ‘Look for fillers and binders like magnesium stearate, for example – quite often they’ll be in there to pad out the product or make it flow well during the manufacturing process.’
The UK currently operates under EU legislation, which means that any claims of health or nutritional benefits on the packaging (for example, ‘Vitamin B12 contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue’) should be approved by the European Food Safety Authority. Be aware that wishy-washy language may indicate effects that aren’t clinically proven – though you may find the anecdotal evidence convincing anyway. It’s definitely a ‘make your own mind up’ situation, but here are a few of the supplements that everyone’s talking about.
Aimed at: women up to the age of 45
Offers: vitamins, minerals and herbs for busy women, including zinc, vitamin C, magnesium, calcium and iron. Wild Nutrition’s ‘Food-Grown’ method is an organic process that doesn’t use preservatives or binding agents; Norton argues that there’s emerging evidence that the body absorbs these ‘natural’ nutrients more effectively than the synthetic versions you’ll find elsewhere.
Aimed at: anyone struggling with stress
Offers: a reduction in anxiety. This powder dissolves to become a salted caramel-flavoured drink containing ashwagandha, a herb that some clinical trials have found to lower cortisol levels; cortisol is responsible for making us jittery during times of stress. The drink also contains L-theanine, which some evidence suggests is another de-stressor.
Aimed at: everyone
Offers: a vitamin D solution to be sprayed under the tongue, where The Nue Co claims it is more easily absorbed than in pill form. There is evidence that many of those hospitalised with Covid-19 are deficient in vitamin D, and so the NHS is now offering a free supply of the vitamin (though not from this swanky brand) to those who are extremely vulnerable to the illness. As we get most of our vitamin D from sunlight, it’s worth taking a supplement during the darker months.
Aimed at: those with fine, fragile or thinning hair
Offers: biotin and selenium, plus various vitamins and iron – the supplement claims to encourage hair growth and reduce shedding. There is some evidence for the benefits of these ingredients, but if you have significant or unusual hair loss it’s advisable to see a doctor, as it can be symptomatic of other conditions.
Aimed at: anyone looking for a glow
Offers: marine collagen to support skin hydration and elasticity, plus astaxanthin and vitamins C and E, which are also claimed to contribute to healthy skin. A relatively small number of studies support the benefits of collagen for skin; on the other hand, rich celebs swear by it.