Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Research Article

One is okay, more is better? Pharmacological aspects and safe limits of nutritional supplements

Pamela Masona1 c1

a1 The Rectory, Grosmont, Monmouthshire NP7 8LW, UK


The use of vitamins, minerals and other supplements has increased considerably during recent years. In the National Diet and Nutrition Survey of British adults aged 19–64 years 40% of those surveyed were taking supplements. In 2005 sales of dietary supplements in the UK were approximately £325·7×106 in ‘bricks and mortar’ shops (excluding health food shops). The physiological effects of vitamins and minerals in amounts approximating to the UK reference nutrient intake or the EU RDA are well understood in terms of reducing the risk of micronutrient deficiency. However, the effects of vitamins, minerals and other supplements in larger amounts have attracted much attention in recent decades, and these effects, some of which may be pharmacological, are not as well categorised. Some of these effects are beneficial, some are not. Although vitamins and minerals and other supplements are generally safe at higher doses, there are some safety issues that are relevant in the context of the wide availability of supplements without a doctor's prescription. Thus, several authorities throughout the world have established upper limits (UL) for the intake of vitamins and minerals, and the EU is in the process of setting maximum permitted levels (MPL) for vitamins and minerals in food supplements. The present paper discusses the potential benefits and safety issues relating to the use of supplements at doses higher than the RDA. The rationale for the establishment of UL is also discussed, explaining the differences between the values set by different authorities and the expected guidance and legislation from the European Commission on MPL for vitamins and minerals in food supplements.


c1 Corresponding author: Dr Pamela Mason, email