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All Hail Kale: 5 things to know about vitamins and supplements

By Tim Samuels, All Hail Kale presenter

Many of us start the day by popping a pill - it’s no wonder the vitamins and supplements market is expected to be worth $200bn in the next five years. But do these pills do any good - might they even be causing us harm?

BBC podcast All Hail Kale has been investigating; here are a few things to consider before you next pop a pill.

1. Horny goats don’t necessarily mean horny humans

Many vitamins and supplements are regulated as foods which means, unlike pharmaceuticals, they don’t have to prove that they work.

So Horny Goat Weed, a ‘natural’ supplement marketed to enhance men’s sexual performance, can take off - not based on any hard evidence but, apparently, on the observations of a goat herder... who noticed his animals getting frisky after ingesting the plant.

2. We’ve sort-of-known about vitamins for several hundred years

There had been piecemeal discoveries about different deficiencies for two hundred plus years - like oranges and lemons curing sailors of scurvy, or chickens eating brown rice getting over beriberi - but the term vitamins was finally coined in 1911.

It wasn’t until the 1930s, however, that scientists were able to concentrate nutrients in pill form as a way to supplement dietary intake.

3. Vitamins were deployed in the war against Hitler

During the Second World War, vitamins really came of age - to keep the country well nourished in the fight against fascism.

In 1942, mandatory fortification of margarine with vitamins A and D began.

Catherine Price, author of Vitamania, said the rise of processed food - like white bread - after the war was a bonanza for vitamins: in essence putting back the nutrients the processing had taken out.

4. High doses of vitamins have been associated with cancer

Research has shown that taking too many over-the-counter vitamins could be linked to an increase risk of cancer.

Taking more than the recommended dose of beta carotene supplements has been associated with an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers - and one study showed that taking vitamin E may heighten the risk of prostate cancer.

The Harvard doctor interviewed in the podcast recommends sticking to a multivitamin - unless you have specific needs - to avoid taking too much of a single vitamin.

5. The Mob and Vitamins strangely have a lot in common

When it comes to ripping-off consumers by price-fixing… the mob might have a thing or two to learn from some of the major vitamins companies, which ran one of the biggest cartels ever seen in Europe and the US.

The collapse of ‘Vitamin Inc’ in the late 1990s led to a $1 billion settlement - then the largest criminal fine in American history.

Hear the reaction of Frank DiMatteo - who comes from a family of New York mobsters - to all the revelations in: ‘Are Vitamins and Supplements Worth Swallowing?’ from All Hail Kale on BBC Sounds.

All pictures from Getty Images.

See more from All Hail Kale and BBC Radio 5 Live