Although we think of supplements as a modern innovation, Hippocrates is said to have cured night blindness with raw liver soaked in honey, while 3,500 years ago, King Amenophis IV ate liver to help his night vision. Now supplementation is huge business and the western world spends hundreds of millions on vitamins and minerals yearly.
We constantly seek to improve our health and arguments rage as to whether supplementation is necessary. Some firmly believe that eating a balanced diet will provide adequate nutrients for good heath and that taking vitamins is a shortcut to health.
In an ideal world, our food would be perfect. In truth we buy most of our fruit and vegetables from the supermarket. These are mostly imported, harvested in an unripe state so many of the nutrients that should be present are not and often unless purely organic can contain traces of pesticides and fungicides.
We live in a pressured society, making huge demands on our physical and psychological being and simply growing older takes its toll. Women wishing to become pregnant and then wanting to give their offspring the best start, may use supplements. Some diet to lose weight and at times we all became ill. Smokers deplete their vitamin intake, compounding free radical damage and, sadly, the air we breathe is saturated with pollutants. And sportsmen and women desiring extraordinary results from their bodies may want to use supplements. So there are many cases where careful supplementation with professionally qualified advice can be useful.
But there can be kashrut problems with supplements.
Beta carotene found in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables is easily converted by the body to vitamin A. Years ago, during winter-time, it was not always possible to provide this vitamin along with vitamin D, so children were given cod liver oil to supplement their diets.
Now governments insist that this vitamin is included in margarine and low-fat dairy products. These used to be sourced from non-kosher animals and fish and have on the whole been replaced by synthetic chemicals. However, care should be taken as palmitic acid additions need kosher certification and certainly when natural vitamin A is used, a hechsher is essential.
Vitamin D is often prescribed in conjunction with calcium and magnesium, and is vital for bone health. Sometimes vitamin D3 is obtained by irradiating lanolin from sheep’s wool, and this can cause discussion over kashrut.
Vitamin E helps cell membranes by acting as an anti-oxidant and so is helpful in problems of free radical damage, particularly cancer and heart disease. It can be produced synthetically offering the kosher-conscious problem-free supplementation. However it is usually manufactured as a by-product of the soy-bean industry and so could be in contact with animal deodorisers and as a result be considered treif.
Also all fat-soluble vitamins have one major problem and that is their preservation. In order to retain their freshness they are usually sealed in gelatine capsules — from meat sources. Now kosher fish gelatine is available but obviously not suitable for those who are observant and vegetarian.
Ideally we should all be eating two to three portions of oily fish a week as fish contains omega 3s, essential for heart health, blood cholesterol maintenance, skin health, joint mobility and brain development. However, with a growing demand for supplements and many fish endangered or expensive, manufacturers have begun to use unusual sources of fish such as sturgeon or shark for oils. Therefore the kashrut of these should be checked, or substituted with an excellent alternative vegetarian source of Omega 3, which is flax seed oil.
Another animal-based supplement which should be avoided is chondroitin, popular for joint health and helpful in the treatment of osteo-arthritis. This is sometimes obtained from crushed shell-fish shells but can also be sourced from bovine, porcine, chicken or shark cartilage and so is treif. Green lipped mussel extract has also been cited as beneficial to joint health but is clearly not kosher.
Finally, any product manufactured from whey — protein powders for invalids and sportsmen in particular — may have been obtained from non-kosher sources or could inadvertently be taken with a meaty meal.
Certainly there are times when supplementation could be useful but keeping kosher requires extra diligence and advice on kashrut should be sought.