August 2007 — Evidence increasingly suggests that vitamin and mineral deficiencies are widespread in the European Union. A recent report, for example, suggests that up to 3.6 million people in the UK now suffer from malnutrition. As a result, according to the British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, malnutrition currently costs the UK’s National Health Service more than £7.3bn (€10.8bn / US $14.8bn) a year.
With the estimates suggesting that up to 6 per cent of the UK population could be suffering from serious vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and UK hospital figures showing malnutrition to be found in all age groups, including newborn babies, one has to question the wisdom of an upcoming proposal from the European Commission – the European Union’s executive body – that threatens to ban thousands of vitamin and mineral supplements from being sold in Europe.
After all, it’s not as if the problem of nutritional deficiencies was only confined to the UK.
In 1997, for example, a report by the European Commission into nutrient intake in European Union Member States concluded that “for almost all vitamins, minerals and trace elements, there exist one or more population groups with intakes below nationally recommended levels.” People thought to be particularly at risk included: women; adolescents or children (particularly “picky” ones); the elderly; women during the periconceptual period; people on a diet for losing weight; people on vegetarian diets; people having allergies to foods; persons eating a high proportion of “fast foods” or “junk foods” and others.
The nutrients found to be most often deficient included iron, iodine and vitamins B2, B6 and D; and this despite the fact that in many cases, with the exception of iodine, they were already being added to some foods as mandatory fortificants.
Given the widespread nature of nutrient deficiencies in Europe, naturopathic doctors, natural health experts and millions of consumers are currently up in arms over the fact that the European Commission is preparing to propose, before the end of this year, restrictions on the maximum permitted levels of vitamins and minerals in food supplements.
Ignoring independent studies showing that the nutrient content of our food has fallen substantially over the past few decades, as well as an an abundance of knowledge and scientific data on vitamins and nutrition that has been available for 50, 60, 70 even 80 years, it is widely expected that the levels the Commission is planning will be highly restrictive and far below those that are necessary to achieve and maintain optimum health. If these expectations are correct, therefore, the legal enforcement of such levels will result in the enactment of Europe-wide bans upon literally thousands of food supplement products, some of which have been sold and consumed safely for decades.
Not for the first time, however, the European Commission’s plans are openly at odds with some of its previous assurances.
In 2002, for example, during the run-up to the adoption by the European Parliament of the controversial Food Supplements Directive, the then European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, David Byrne, published a message on the internet, on behalf of the Commission, in which he claimed that “The aim is not to ban food supplements, as some have alleged.”
Byrne’s message was published in response to the large number of letters that the Commission had received from citizens who were concerned about the Directive and who were opposed to its adoption. Notably, therefore, Byrne specifically stated in this message that: “There is no doubt that most of the products marketed today are safe and of the expected quality.”
As such, if the maximum levels for vitamins and minerals that the Commission proposes turn out to be as low as some observers are claiming they will be, many consumers of food supplements will quite reasonably conclude that the Commission knowingly intends to ban products that it considers to be safe.
Perhaps mindful of the large numbers of European citizens who oppose the Food Supplements Directive, Byrne chose to end his message as follows: “I can assure you that your interests and those of consumers in general were at the top of our concerns when we proposed the Directive. I believe that you have every right to have a wide choice of safe and appropriately labelled food supplements available, to buy if you so wish. And I remain convinced that the Directive that will be shortly formally adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers will ensure that.”
When the maximum levels are eventually announced, therefore, European citizens will finally discover whether Byrne and the Commission were telling the truth, or whether – as some have alleged – their real aim was to ban supplements and they were lying all along.