Head of Programme Complaints
BBC Broadcasting House
London W1A 1AA

Alliance for Natural Health
Institute for Complementary Medicine

17 September 2004


The Horizon team attempted last night to offer its viewers a balanced treatment on the controversial subject of vitamin supplementation (BBC2, The Truth About Vitamins, 9.00 pm, 16 September). Although the BBC's delivery was typically slick, we are convinced that thousands of consumers, practitioners and scientists around Britain and beyond, found the programme a difficult pill to swallow. This was however less to do with the evidence included, and more to do with what was left out. Moreover, there are likely to be thousands of less informed consumers around the country who are now ambivalent as to the value of their daily supplements. Is this simply a side effect of objective journalism, or, are we really over-consuming vitamins and other nutritional supplements, or, was the programme out to bad-mouth vitamin supplements?

Was the Horizon programme fair and balanced?

In our view: resolutely no. The Alliance for Natural Health contacted Horizon before the programme went to air and was advised that the programme would offer a “fair and balanced view of the subject and encompasses scientific opinions across the range.”[1] We were also advised that Horizon “…are certainly not in the business of providing a "negative view about vitamins" and the film is fully up to Horizon's standards.”[1]

A good balance of arguments and fairness should surely be critical attributes given the bold title given to the programme. However, in our view, the programme's failure to be neither fair nor balanced could have serious consequences in terms of consumer perception of nutrient supplementation and complementary medicine more generally. Some of the main reasons for our concerns are listed below:

1. The programme considered scientific evidence on only 3 vitamin groups: A (retinol and beta-carotene), C and E. In none of these cases did it adequately consider the benefits of supplementing these vitamins, despite large numbers of studies which support the benefit of multi-vitamin (and mineral) supplementation.

2. The programme did not consider any scientific evidence relating to the importance of consuming combinations of vitamins, with or without other nutrient groups, as supplements.

3. The programme focussed on dismissing justifications for high dose supplement regimes and offered no discussion on the benefits of supplementation combined with a balanced and varied diet.

4. The risks associated with excessive consumption of retinol (Vitamin A) were postured as a recent discovery when in fact they have been known for decades.

5. The benefits of beta-carotene supplementation in reducing lung cancer for the majority of the population (i.e. excluding high risk groups such as smokers and asbestos workers) were not made clear, nor were the benefits of supplementing natural carotenoids compared with the synthetic beta-carotene used in the studies portrayed in the programme.

6. A large number of studies demonstrating the very broad range of benefits associated with high dose vitamin C supplementation were ignored.

The complementary medicine viewpoint

There is no doubt that more research is required to better understand the human species' extremely complex relationship with the nutrients with which it has evolved. This is the case with all aspects of healthcare and indeed any area of human endeavour. Most people are very aware that risks are associated with over-consumption of most foods and food products, but they may not appreciate that vitamins are actually one of the safest groups of food-based ingredient known.

A significant and growing proportion of the population in the UK and other countries are making the conscious decision to take personal responsibility for their own health. Critical to this approach is a high degree of dietary awareness, which includes an appreciation of the fact that a typical contemporary western diet no longer delivers sufficient micronutrients to ensure optimum health for most population groups. Supplementation of the diet is developing as a technological means of overcoming the shortfall in nutritional intake and assists consumers in achieving levels of nutrients that are know to be optimal, rather than simply being the levels which prevent deficiency diseases (as per the now outdated and inappropriate Recommended Daily Allowances or RDAs).

Those who ‘self care' are the very people who are relieving the burden on the over-stretched National Health Service, yet they are made to feel, by media such as that broadcast by the BBC last night, that their healthcare approach is irresponsible and potentially harmful. There are over 70,000 complementary practitioners in the UK alone who are administering natural therapies. When assessing the overall risk of natural therapies on the population as a whole, there is no evidence that any significant risk is incurred when compared with other sources of risk. In fact, vitamins and other natural healthcare products are considerably safer than foods and many thousands of times safer than the average medicine.
Horizon had a golden opportunity to balance the arguments that would help viewers to make more informed decisions on their healthcare approach. But here the programme failed dismally, the result of which will only be an increase in the queues for an already over-subscribed NHS that is in the business of prescribing medicines, not nutrients.

The era of nutritional medicine may not yet have arrived, but Horizon would have done its tax-paying viewers a much greater service had it at least attempted to communicate to its audience some of the recent and fascinating discoveries in this rapidly expanding field. However, while it remains a legal offence to claim medicinal effects attributed to non-medicinal products such as foods and vitamins, perhaps such a story was considered too risky by the programme makers. We ask the question: whose truth about vitamins was Horizon portraying? After all, it most certainly wasn't the whole truth.


To the media

The Alliance for Natural Health, in conjunction with the Institute for Complementary Medicine, has arranged for a number of key experts (scientists, doctors and practitioners) to be available to the media today (17 September 2004).

Please contact either of the following for views on Horizon's The Truth About Vitamins story as well as on related issues, and for referral to a specialist capable of rebutting key aspects of the Horizon story.

This debate goes to the heart of the issues around so-called conventional and complementary healthcare approaches. Help your audience to make more informed choices on one of the hottest topics in the media.


Robert Verkerk PhD
Executive Director
Alliance for Natural Health
Tel: 01252 371 275
Mobile: 0771 484 7225 (direct)
Email: [email protected]

Michael Endacott
Institute for Complementary Medicine
Tel: 020 7237 4187
Mobile: 07980 609089 (direct)
Email: [email protected]


[1] See, Latest News item, 15 September 2004.