Dose of fact

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 November, 2011, 12:00am


An occasional flutter on Mark Six and, if in Macau, a single HK$100 note in a slot machine: that's the extent of my gambling. But it seems I have been taking a punt for years with the vitamin pills I have been popping with my breakfast juice every day. So little is known about such over-the-counter products that taking them without the advice of a doctor or dietician could actually be harmful to my health. I was oblivious to this until I began researching cheaper multivitamins to the ones available in Hong Kong.

Vitamin pills tend to be several times more expensive here than in the United States, Europe and Australia. An off-the-cuff example: Centrum A to Zinc costs HK$199 or so for 100 tablets, but is being sold on the Amazon website at US$24.25 for a bottle of 365. The same kind of mark-up applies to other common brands like GNC and Doctor's Choice. As these are already distributed here, online shops are unable to ship them.

It was while checking out unfamiliar brands that I chanced upon websites espousing vitamins made of natural sources rather than synthetic material - which is most often the primary composition of those found in pharmacies. The sites raised questions about the lack of information about production, solubility, overdoses and interaction with prescribed medications. No manufacturer can conclusively prove the general health benefits of their products, although researchers have shown the detrimental effects of particular ones. That there is no government oversight or peer review is worrying.

My mother set me on the vitamin pill route as a teenager, giving me three each morning, assuring me they would keep me healthy. I have kept up the habit, believing that a daily multivitamin tablet and, more recently, fish oil and a vitamin D pill, will fill in the gaps of what I perceive to be an inadequate diet and the deficiencies of food production and processing. Rarely do I get around to eating the two fruits and three to five vegetables a day nutritionists recommend. I am not fond of fish and the older I get, the less meat I consume. The pills will help ward off whatever ailments age brings, I tell myself.

I am not the only one to believe this, as the well-stocked pharmacy shelves prove. A Hong Kong Medical Journal study showed that more than half of parents give their children vitamin and mineral supplements, believing them necessary for normal development and that they improve intelligence. A similar percentage of Americans take them and the industry in the US has grown to US$26 billion a year.

The dizzying array of supplements available makes testing overwhelming for governments and institutions. Side effects are only known over time and even decades are not enough for proper research. So, the possibility of harm goes unchecked, put into the 'too hard' basket.

Only a health specialist can tell me if I truly need vitamins or if they are bad for me. To me, that says that they should be by prescription only. They are, after all, only a creation of recent decades - and humanity got by nicely for tens of thousands of years without them. Time, for me at least, to give them up until the government can prove that by taking them I am not gambling with my health.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post