Do you need to take pregnancy multivitamins?

They’re marketed at pregnant women hoping to give their baby the best possible start in life, but new research has found that for most mums pregnancy multivitamins are a waste of money as they don’t improve the health of the mother or baby at all

Supplements which adorn the shelves of most high street chemists typically contain more than 20 vitamins and minerals, including B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, iodine, magnesium, iron and zinc and cost around £15 per month.

Researchers writing in Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin say their evidence shows that mothers-to-be should avoid these supplements and instead just take folic acid and vitamin D and concentrate on improving their overall diet.

“Women may simply be unaware that the only supplements recommended for all pregnant women are folic acid and vitamin D and may be vulnerable to messages about giving their baby the best start in life, regardless of cost,” concludes the report. It goes on to say, “we found no evidence to recommend that all pregnant women should take prenatal multi-nutrient supplements beyond the nationally advised folic acid and vitamin D supplements, generic versions of which can be purchased relatively inexpensively.”

The researchers found that folic acid had the strongest evidence to support its use and the NHS advises women to take 400 micrograms a day whilst trying to conceive and for the first ten weeks of pregnancy. This is because it’s known to reduce the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida.

Ten micrograms of vitamin D is also recommended throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding as this may help boost the bone health of both mother and baby.

But one supplement which should be avoided is vitamin A as there is evidence to suggest that it can increase the risk of birth defects.   Women are also told to avoid eating liver or liver products, such as pate as they contain high levels of the vitamin.

Commenting on the report, the Royal College of Midwives says, “This adds to a growing body of evidence that the benefits of eating a well balanced nutritious diet cannot be underestimated. We would encourage women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant to have a healthy, varied diet including fresh fruit and vegetables, alongside taking folic acid supplements.”

So if all that’s needed is a good diet, folic acid and vitamin D supplements how do the manufacturers of these expensive multivitamins support their marketing claims? According to the report, “much of the evidence on which their claims are based comes from studies carried out in low income countries, where women are more likely to be under-nourished or malnourished than those in the UK.   And they’re often based on observational studies which are subject to bias.”

But the NHS has raised questions about the methodology of this new research, despite the fact its findings are in line with current recommendations. And perhaps less surprisingly, the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association, which represents the food supplements industry, has also challenged the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin report. It says that in an ideal world we would all get the vitamins and minerals we need from a balanced diet, but for a large proportion of pregnant women this simply isn’t possible. It goes on to say that the report could put vulnerable mothers and babies at risk because they now won’t take any supplements at all.