Supplements: Are You Buying Snake Oil?

Australians are popping natural supplements by the fistful, with more than two-thirds of Aussies contributing to a national spend of around $2 billion annually.

But recently the efficacy and the safety of these vitamins, minerals, and herbal products have been called into question.

Most notably, Four Corners aired a report on the increase of complementary medicine sales in pharmacies, and questioned why pharmacists are recommending products that “might be a load of rubbish.”

The report triggered backlash from the complementary medicine community, who argue that their therapies offer safe and gentle approaches to the management of many health complaints.

So what’s the deal? And as a consumer, how can you know whether a product is worth the dollars you’re paying for it?

Not All Supplements Are Created Equal

 So far, the discussion seems to be focussed on whether supplements as a whole do or do not work. But this line of argument has some obvious limitations, because the definition of a natural supplement is so broad that it encompasses products that are completely different by their very nature.

Vitamins & Minerals

Take vitamins, for example. These are compounds naturally found in our bodies, and by supplementing with them we are simply increasing the amount in circulation, supporting the body’s natural processes. Individual minerals like iron and zinc work in a similar manner.

Vitamin C

This popular cold and flu remedy was recently subject to a large-scale review of 31 studies. The author found that vitamin C didn’t reduce the incidence of colds in the general population (it did in athletes under intense physical stress) but that it did, in fact, reduce the duration of an infection. For those of us who find ourselves sick and want to get over it quickly, there may still be a place for a vitamin C supplement.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is another over-the-counter natural supplement that deserves its place on shelves. A recent review of the evidence, which looked at over 26,000 men and women in Western countries, found that low vitamin D levels were associated with higher rates of “all-cause mortality” including cancer and cardiovascular disease. Normal supplementation has been shown to be an effective approach to correct these deficiencies.

With just under one in four Aussies being deficient in this nutrient, it makes sense to get your levels tested by your doctor, and then supplement if it’s warranted.

Herbal medicine

Herbal medicines, on the other hand, are extracts of whole plants, and as a result are cocktails of hundreds of different naturally occurring compounds rather than a single, isolated one.


St John’s Wort

A Cochrane review of the existing evidence concluded that this popular herbal remedy is an effective natural treatment for depression, but commented that the quality and origin of the extract was an important consideration.

But before you rush out and jump on the St John’s Wort bandwagon, it’s worth mentioning that this proven herbal remedy interacts with other medications, and so you should check with your doctor to see if it’s appropriate for you.

Homeopathy & Flower Essences

Lastly, homeopathy is an archaic form of “energetic medicine” that developed in the late 1700s and is based on the philosophy that “like cures like”. Homeopathic remedies are in fact diluted until they contain little to no active compounds, but are prescribed under the assumption that they contain an “energetic imprint” of the original product — erm….ok.

Homeopathic preparations were investigated by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in an extensive review that found them to be largely ineffective. Flower remedies like the popular Bach Rescue Remedy are similarly controversial.

Safeguarding Australians

Given the variety of products that fall under the umbrella term ‘natural supplements’, you can see why the topic deserves a more sophisticated discussion. It’s not a case of “all supplements work” and nor is it fair to say that “supplements are all complete rubbish”; each one deserves to be considered on its own merit.

Ultimately some supplements work, some don’t, and some simply haven’t yet been subject to enough research to make a call either way. But for consumers there is currently no easy way to tell which is which.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is the regulating body for complementary medicines in Australia. And to their credit, they do a pretty good job of keeping us safe. In countries like the United States, insufficient regulation has seen “natural” supplements make it on to the market that turn out to be laced with pharmaceuticals.

In Australia we are better protected, with natural medicine products needing to be listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods and meet certain safety and manufacturing standards before they can go on sale.

Of course, even if a supplement is declared safe, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has been proven effective. And there is not yet enough transparency in labelling for consumers to be able to tell whether or not a product is truly going to be of benefit.

Perhaps soon we might have a grading system for natural medicines to reflect the level of research behind them. Until then thought it’s up to doctors, pharmacists and complementary health practitioners to deliver the best possible advice to their clients and customers, to ensure that effective natural healthcare doesn’t get lost under an avalanche of misleading packaging and confusing claims.

Reece Carter is a qualified Naturopath, herbal medicine expert and Australia’s very own ‘Garden Pharmacist’. From the planter box to the pantry and with a lifelong passion for all things green, this self-professed herb-nerd has all the answers.