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How the New EU Food Supplements Directive Affects Consumers

By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD

I buy a standard multivitamin and mineral supplement. Will I still be able to get it after August 2005

Yes! If you take the types of vitamin and mineral supplements you find in supermarkets or pharmacies, you’ll almost certainly have little to worry about. However, the formulation of your supplement may change slightly. For example, your supplement may be reformulated so that it no longer contains certain nutrients that are not on the positive list such as boron or vanadium. However, some manufacturers may have submitted a safety dossier for certain vitamins and minerals that are currently excluded from the positive list and so their product may still include these. Bear in mind, too, that some manufacturers have already reformulated their products so the best advice is to check the label of your supplement if you’re not sure what it contains.

I take a supplement that contains a really high dose of vitamin C. Will I still be able to get this?

Yes, for the time being but things will soon change. Maximum doses are likely to be introduced in 2007 but at the moment it’s unclear what these are likely to be. It’s a case of watch this space! We’ll make sure we update you as soon as there’s more news.

What vitamins and minerals have been banned under the Directive?

No vitamins have been banned but six minerals often used in food supplements have been excluded from the positive list. These are tin, silicon, nickel, boron, cobalt and vanadium. However, some will continue to be included in products until the European Food Safety Authority decides on their safety and so potentially may be found in supplements until the end of 2009. Furthermore, many chemical forms or sources of vitamins and minerals have been banned. Again, some of these have had safety dossiers submitted, others have not.

Does the Directive look at anything else other than the vitamins and minerals that should be used in food supplements and suitable doses?

Yes! It also sets down rules for the labelling of food supplements with the aim of enabling consumers to make informed choices about whether or not they should take the product. Supplements must not suggest they will prevent, treat or cure a disease. Furthermore, they must make it clear that they shouldn’t be used as a substitute for a varied diet or imply that a varied diet can’t provide appropriate amounts of nutrients.

My GP prescribes me vitamins. Will these be affected under the new legislation?

No! The directive considers food supplements to be separate from medicines. In other words, food supplements are put in a group with food rather than medicine and are sold under food law in supermarkets, pharmacies and health food shops. The Directive does not cover vitamins and minerals that are licensed medicinal products. This means if you need these products you’ll still be able to get them on prescription from your GP.

Are any other supplements such as herbal products or cod liver oil affected?

Not at the moment but they soon will be. Currently, the Directive only deals with vitamins and minerals but it’s going to be extended to cover other food supplements including herb and plant extracts, fatty acids, amino acids and fibre extracts.

Isn’t this just a case of the European Union limiting the choice of supplements available?

Consumers should certainly be in a position to take higher doses of vitamins and minerals if they feel there is a benefit from doing so. However, if there’s a risk that certain doses may cause harm, it’s important to have restrictions in place. Ultimately, the legislation will mean that consumers have more protection and are in a position to make a more informed choice about the products they’re taking or thinking about taking. The new law will mean that consumers have plenty of information about the product and can be confident that the supplement is safe and of good quality.

I’ve been taking food supplements for years because I’ve thought they are healthy. I definitely feel better for it so why do restrictions need to be made?

It’s often assumed that as vitamins and minerals are good for us, then more must be better. But this isn’t always the case. Until now, there’s been limited information about the vitamins and minerals that could potentially risk our health and at what level these risks may occur. Now this information is available, it’s important that manufacturers act on it in order to protect their customers.

So have I done myself harm by taking supplements that include ingredients excluded from the ‘positive list’?

It’s highly unlikely! Vitamins and minerals have been around since food itself, but the forms in which they now occur in supplements are new and often the doses are much higher than you’d find in food. The maximum doses that are set will act as a safeguard to ensure you don’t suffer any health problems as a result of consuming excessive amounts.

I still don’t agree with the new legislation. Where can I voice my concerns?

One of the main organisations campaigning against the legislation is the Alliance for Natural Health. Log on to their website at www.alliance-natural-health.org to find out more.

Bottom line: do I really need to take a supplement?

If you’re eating a good diet it’s possible to get all the vitamins and minerals you need (see Healthy Eating Basics). However, there are a few exceptions.

Firstly, there’s good evidence that folic acid (a B vitamin) can help to prevent the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida. It’s difficult to get sufficient amounts from the diet alone, so all women trying for a baby and in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy are advised to take a supplement containing 400 micrograms of folic acid.

Meanwhile, the latest National Diet and Nutrition survey shows that many people in the UK are having low intakes of certain vitamins and minerals and may therefore be at risk of deficiency. Consequently, they may benefit from supplementing their diet.

Generally speaking, women are more likely to be at risk of poor nutrient intakes than men. Meanwhile, younger adults and elderly people are more likely to have low nutrient intakes than other adults.

In particular, many groups of the population have poor intakes of vitamin A, riboflavin (vitamin B2), iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iodine. Fortunately, none of these ingredients have been banned and will still continue to be found in multivitamin and mineral supplements, although in the first instance it’s better to boost intakes by eating more foods rich in these nutrients.

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