Trundling down to your local health food shop for high-dose Vitamin C or echinacea drops may become a thing of the past if the EU gets its way. A European Commission directive coming into force next August will mean the banning of nearly 300 vitamin and mineral supplements and the enforcement of upper limits on particular vitamins.
According to Paoli Pestori, the director of food safety at the European Commission, the legislation was being introduced to protect the public from food supplements, vitamins and other products on the market which are not, under current law, subject to the rigorous research requirements of proprietary drugs. He refutes the point that it will mean the disappearance of the likes of St John's Wort, black cohosh, glucosamine and chondroitin and high doses of vitamins across the board. "The directive will not ban any product," he told the BBC last January. "The aim is to ensure that vitamin and mineral pills which are marketed as food supplements are safe and properly labelled."
While the latter half of his statement may be true, the first half is not.
By setting maximum levels for vitamins and minerals, many products could disappear from shops overnight. The problem is one of perception of necessary levels for good health. The EU is using the Daily Reference Values as a yardstick. These replaced outmoded Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) in 1991 and are based on levels set by nutritionists that meet the nutritional needs of 97.5 per cent of the population. But some studies have shown that food supplements have the power, at far greater doses than DRVs, to enhance health and to treat a variety of complaints, going way beyond the notion of nutritional needs. While properly conducted human trials are thin on the ground in this area, some of those that exist are compelling.
Large-scale epidemiological and clinical trials on Omega-3 fish oils, for instance, have shown conclusively that they are effective in preventing cardiovascular disease among those with a pre-existing condition as well as healthy people.
But other studies have shown contradictory, inconclusive or negative findings. A number, including those looking at the effectiveness of beta-carotene, had to be discontinued because of increased mortality among those taking the supplement. Because of cautiousness when it comes to setting maximum levels for supplements, the new EU directive may to set limits two or three times above current levels. That is expected to mean tough luck for arthritis sufferers, women wanting to prevent osteoporosis and the snivelling masses who want some relief from their annual colds.
Another directive will mean that herbal remedies are licensed in the same way as drugs, which will stipulate that a product must have been marketed for 30 years, half of that time in Europe, and that only the largest companies will be able to afford the licenses.
Stringent rules will also apply to functional foods, like plant stanol-enriched margarine that lowers cholesterol and probiotic yoghurts and drinks.