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Will your Supplements be Banned?

By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD

Ask most nutrition experts whether we really need to take vitamin and mineral supplements, and they’ll usually say it’s unnecessary providing you’re eating a balanced diet that’s packed with a range of nutrients.

But with today’s fast-paced lifestyles, many of us find it hard to always prepare and eat nutritious meals – and so take dietary supplements as a safeguard.

According to the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey – a large survey that looks at the dietary habits and nutritional status of people in Britain – more than one in three of us pops a daily pill to help boost our intake of vitamins and minerals. But come the 1 August 2005, many of us may find our usual supplements are no longer available, thanks to new legislation – the European Food Supplements Directive – that’s likely to see around 5,000 supplements made illegal in the UK.

It’s been a controversial issue ever since the Directive was first passed in 2002. And now that it’s just months away from coming into effect, the debate is reaching its peak, as campaigners fighting the legislation put in one last bid to prevent it from becoming law.

Uncovering the legislation

The new legislation has two main aims: firstly, to protect consumers from unsafe products by standardising the rules that affect the definition, composition and labelling of dietary supplements sold in the European Union; and secondly to assist the trade of supplements across member states. Sceptics argue that it’s simply been devised to aid the latter, but supporters say the legislation is long overdue and believe it will protect consumers in a market that, until now, has been poorly controlled.

The Directive lists those vitamins and minerals that can be used in supplements and states that each ingredient must be proven to be safe and in a form the body can easily use.

Currently, a ‘positive list’ of around 120 ingredients has been developed, although vitamins and minerals may be added to this list in the future if manufacturers submit a dossier to demonstrate their safety. Fortunately, the current list includes most of the common vitamins and minerals found in supplements, such as vitamins A, B1, B2, C and E, and minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and potassium.

But those who oppose the legislation are concerned that around 300 ingredients also often used in supplements have been missed off the list and, as a consequence, will become illegal from August 2005. The only way to get them back on the list is to submit a safety dossier to the European Food Safety Authority – the organisation responsible for making decisions on whether or not an ingredient is safe and can therefore be added to the ‘positive’ list.

Currently, manufacturer’s have until July to submit their safety dossiers and can continue using the nutrient in their product until the end of 2009 or until the European Food Safety Authority comes to a decision, whichever is sooner. According to many manufacturers though, these dossiers are very expensive to produce – costing up to £250,000 for each ingredient – and as a result, it’s really only the larger companies that can afford to do this.

The case against…

The Alliance for Natural Health – a non-profit organisation who are campaigning against the legislation – say the Directive only allows 15 minerals to be used in food supplements, despite increasing evidence that our bodies need many more than this for optimum health. Its members – who include scientists, complementary medical practitioners, supplement manufacturers and consumers – are also concerned that the forms of vitamins that are allowed are often synthetic rather than natural, despite scientific evidence to show that some natural forms are more readily available to the body, and therefore more effective, than their synthetic equivalents.

In fact, some sceptics have even suggested this is a conspiracy by the pharmaceutical industry to restrict access to natural substances, thereby forcing consumers to rely on synthetic products that are generally produced by larger companies. Ultimately, they say the smaller, specialised firms will suffer most while consumers will be forced to buy their usual products from illegal sources, such as unregulated internet dealers, thus undermining safety standards, which are one of the main goals of the Directive.

In a final attempt to stop the ban, the Alliance for Natural Health challenged the Directive in the European Court of Justice earlier this year. A decision is expected in April but it looks likely to fall in favour of supporters of the legislation.

The case for…

Indeed, many nutrition experts and consumer groups welcome the ban and claim that only those products containing vitamins or minerals at levels that might cause harm will be withdrawn. In addition, they believe it’s in the consumer’s best interest to allow only chemical forms of a vitamin or mineral that the body can easily use.

The Consumers’ Association say this legislation is a positive step as it means we won’t be wasting our money on poor quality supplements that can’t be used by the body. They claim supplements will continue to be available if they are safe and in a form the body can use and say responsible manufacturers should already be in a position to show their products are safe and can be readily absorbed. Therefore submitting a dossier for ingredients not currently on the ‘positive list’ shouldn’t be a problem.

Too much of a good thing

But the controversy doesn’t stop here. Campaigners are also concerned that in addition to certain vitamins and minerals being banned, doses will also be dramatically reduced in two years time, once this part of the Directive comes into effect. They argue the high doses currently used don’t pose a risk to health.

But many nutrition experts disagree and say that consuming some vitamins and minerals in large amounts may actually damage our health – a fact backed up by a report from the Food Standards Agency’s Expert Group on Vitamins and Minerals. The report, published in 2003, provided advice on the safety of 31 vitamins and minerals for the first time and set safe upper levels or guidance levels for each.

The report showed that current intakes of most vitamins and minerals are not harmful but one substance used in supplements called chromium picolinate – an ingredient that’s often used in slimming products rather than food supplements – has the potential to cause cancer. Further research is currently taking place.

Meanwhile, the report found that some vitamins and minerals could have irreversible harmful effects if taken in large amounts over long periods of time. These included beta-carotene (especially a risk for smokers if taken in excess), nicotinic acid (a B vitamin), zinc, manganese (especially a concern for older people taking excessive amounts) and phosphorus.

Three nutrients were also identified as having short-term harmful effects if taken in excess. Doses of vitamin C above 1,000mg a day and high doses of calcium and iron were found to cause abdominal pain and diarrhoea. The report also advised against taking more than 10mg a day of vitamin B6 unless recommended by a GP, as high intakes over a long time can lead to nerve damage.

Many nutrition experts also claim that most consumers and GPs are unlikely to suspect supplements as being a possible cause of ill health, unless there’s a sudden, violent reaction that occurs shortly after taking the product. They say it’s difficult to identify how many people are currently affected adversely by excessive doses and so believe that the sooner maximum safe levels are set for vitamins and minerals in food supplements, the better.

Currently, all the doses have been set in the UK and are waiting to be agreed on by the rest of the European Union. These amounts have been based on scientific evidence about safe levels and take into account the amount of vitamins and minerals we could potentially consume from food and the amounts we’re advised to have. Quite simply, it’s a case of watching this space to find out the maximum doses that will be allowed in supplements in the future.

Food for thought

One thing’s for sure though! The controversy is likely to continue over the next few months as campaigners fight to get the ban lifted and supporters push for the legislation to be passed.

Ultimately though, there’s no getting away from the fact that eating a balanced, varied diet is the best way to meet your needs for vitamins and minerals. Research proves that individual nutrients given in the form of a supplement are less likely to promote health when compared to the combination of nutrients supplied by Mother Nature in whole foods. And let’s face it, it’s far more enjoyable to get all the vitamins and minerals we need by eating fresh, delicious and tasty foods – rather than constantly popping pills!

To find out more about what the new legislation will mean for you, click here: How the new Vitamins and Minerals Laws will affect you.

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