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You are here: BBC > Science & Nature > TV & Radio Follow-up > Programmes > Horizon
A handful of pills
The Truth About Vitamins

Are vitamins doing us any good? Could they even be dangerous?

Vitamins questions and answers

Programme transcript

Every year we spend £300 million on vitamin supplements, but do they actually do us any good? Some believe they offer the promise of preventing or even curing some of the world's biggest killers, such as heart disease and cancer. Others claim that taking large doses of some vitamins may in certain cases be harmful. So what are the facts?

Vitamin C, the most popular of them all
Nearly 40 years ago, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century and double Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling, revolutionised the way people thought about vitamins. He claimed that by taking huge doses of vitamin C you could prevent or even cure the common cold.

He predicted that if everybody followed his advice, the common cold could even be eradicated. Many scientists dismissed his theory as quackery, but the public loved it and it helped launch a huge industry. But the latest evidence shows the great man was mistaken. Vitamin C can help you once have got a cold, but for most people it does nothing to prevent you from catching one in the first place.

Even if large doses of vitamin C do not prevent the common cold, some claim that it can still offer a more profound benefit. It is one of a group of vitamins called anti-oxidants that some believe can prevent illnesses such as cancer, Alzheimer's and heart disease.

Too much of a good thing?
In 2004, scientists in the United States claimed that people could be missing any of the potential benefits of taking one of the world's most popular anti-oxidant vitamin supplements, vitamin E, because their bodies might not be absorbing it. But our own investigation suggested that the American scientists' conclusion could be mistaken.

While most safety experts believe that vitamins C and E can be taken safely even in quite large doses, there is worrying evidence that one form of another common vitamin, vitamin A, could be linked to osteoporosis, a debilitating bone disease.

If the theory is right it means that a person's diet, or some supplements that they take every day to improve their health, could actually be slowly and silently weakening their bones.

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 Elsewhere on bbc.co.uk

Health: You are what you eat
Eat something green, something red and something citrus every day.

Health: Vitamins and minerals
If you're sports mad, do you need to take vitamin supplements?

Health: Vitamin dangers
Take too much vitamin B6 and you could cause nerve damage...

 Elsewhere on the web

The UK Food Standards Agency
Advice on food and safe levels of vitamin consumption.

British Dietetic Association
Find out more about state registered dieticians.

Institute For Optimum Nutrition
Information about Patrick Holford and his institution.

The Cochrane Foundation
Free, readable summaries of the evidence for health claims, including vitamin C and the common cold.

The Linus Pauling Institute
More on Linus Pauling and his research into vitamins.

National Institutes of Health
A good summary of recent research about the safety of vitamin A and beta-carotene from the U.S.

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All content within BBC Science & Nature is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. The BBC is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis, decision or self-assessment made by a user based on the content of the BBC Science & Nature website. The BBC is not liable for the content of any external internet sites listed, nor does it endorse any commercial product or service mentioned or advised on any of the sites. Always consult your own GP if you're in any way concerned about your health.


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