Sales of dietary supplements are rocketing, but their drain on plant and animal life makes them a bitter pill.
It is a wonder most of us don't make a rattling sound as we walk around, such is the penetration of the dietary supplement industry. From St John's Wort to exotic cure-alls, globally, 300m of us now pop one pill or another every day.
The 'ethical' demographic is something of a sitting duck here. Historically, vitamin pills have been a mainstay of health food shops, and vegetarians and vegans are under particular pressure to supplement their diets because of their 'restricted' menus.Despite this important audience, the BUAV (British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection) reports that 'cruel and unnecessary tests are being driven by the country's growing infatuation with both super foods and health supplements', with non-medicinal tests on animals rising to 4,000 procedures last year.
But, increasingly, our yearning for 'natural' means plant-sourced supplements. As well as concerns over harvesting, processing and food miles, regulators grapple with all kinds of variables. According to biologist Massimo Maffei, 'There's the presence of potentially toxic pesticide residues, and purity concerns, such as the potential for contamination with bacteria and fungal growth.'
Because of the threat of pesticide residues in supplements (visit www.consumerlab.com - one of the few websites to analyse supplements), many pill poppers take the organic route, and the Soil Association now certifies a number of organic supplements (www.ethicalvitamins.co.uk).
But I worry about sustainability in general. Many supplements are trend-driven, so if 300m westerners suddenly decide an Amazonian plant is the ticket to shiny hair, it could spell ecological disaster. Exploitation of a limited botanical resource can involve raiding an indigenous community's plants and lead to a loss of erosion control.
According to Leland Cseke, author of Natural Products from Plants: 'The largest number of plant species occur in developing countries that do not have the resources for conducting an extensive screening of their national biodiversity.' Increasingly, 'ethical' companies spot this and put the emphasis on farming.
Source - Observer