Vitamins and freedom of choice

An EU directive could outlaw high-dose vitamins and minerals

High-dose vitamins and minerals, used by about 12 million people in the UK for illnesses ranging from colds to heart disease, are under threat by a EU directive that could see them outlawed.
The aim is to standardise the market, but many European countries regard anything above the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) as a drug. This has led to the rise of a black market through which hundreds of thousands of people buy supplements from the UK and The Netherlands by mail order and the Internet.

Here, Consumers for Health Choice (CHC), an alliance of consumers, practitioners, retailers and manufacturers, say that 21 per cent of the population consults an alternative practitioner regularly, many of whom treat patients with supplements. "The effect could be devastating," says Harry Masterton-Smith, the chairman of the CHC. "High-dose supplements are often a last resort for people when no one else has found answers."

Guila Quintarelli, 28, an osteopath, developed chronic fatigue syndrome as a student. She spent six months almost house-bound before turning to a kinesiologist, who identified imbalances by testing muscle impulses. She was treated with high doses of nutrients and within weeks was back at college.
"All doctors could offer were anti-depressants," she says. "For the first three months I was bed-ridden. Walking for five minutes felt like a marathon. I don't know what I would have done without the supplements."

Thousands of studies have shown the efficacy of high-dose vitamins and minerals. One of the leading exponents for their use in cardiovascular disease is the US-based author Dr Matthias Rath, who has conducted clinical trials on the use of supplements. One of his studies indicated that a supplement programme, including high-dose vitamin C used over a year, slowed the growth of artery-clogging plaque in early coronary artery disease.

The UK supplements industry follows a set of guidelines under which the upper safe levels of nutrients have been defined after scientific analysis of research data. The Food Standards Agency (FSA), on behalf of the Government, believes the safety issue should be at the core of the directive, but many countries are pushing for the maximum limits to be based on RDAs rather than upper safe levels.

Rosemary Hignett, the head of food labelling at the FSA, says: "Safety is the key issue. Restricting levels of vitamins and minerals other than on safety grounds is unnecessary and limits consumer choice."

An expert group on vitamins and minerals is reviewing the scientific evidence for the FSA. The draft directive, as it stands, takes a broadly safety-based approach, but does not include specific figures for each nutrient. Limits will be set only after it is adopted.

The fear is that these limits will be very low. Until recently, CHC remained positive as it lobbied MEPs. But that changed when an amendment was proposed that, if adopted, would limit the upper levels of nutrients to just five times the RDAs. Dr Derek Shrimpton, author of the report that underpins the supplement industry's guidelines, has participated in the discussions of the UK's expert group as an official observer. "Working out the upper limits is a complicated business, but I would hope that there is no reference to RDAs &Mac247; it is fundamentally unsound," he says. "Vitamin C is a good example. The RDA is 60mg, but over a few days there would be no harm in taking 2,000mg daily to fight a cold."

CHC, which has 267,000 people on its mailing list, and the National Association of Health Stores (NAHS), had their fears fuelled when the European Scientific Committee on Food said that the upper safe level of Vitamin B6 should be 25mg, when the current industry-imposed limit is 200mg. The directive, as it stands, would reduce that by half.

The problem, says Ralph Pike, the director of the NAHS, is that the committee relied on research that has been ridiculed by the scientific community. "We fought this battle with the Government in 1998. The US National Academy of Sciences decided that 200mg of vitamin B6 a day was safe."

Three million people take more than 25mg of vitamin B6 daily. It has been the subject of clinical trials, and a review of its efficacy in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome, led by Dr Katrina Wyatt, of the Academic Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at North Staffordshire Hospital, Stoke-on-Trent, concluded that doses up to 100mg daily are likely to be of benefit in treating premenstrual symptoms and premenstrual depression.
"We're talking about freedom of choice," says Masterton-Smith.
"I'm allowed to smoke myself to death or drink myself under the table, so why can't I take perfectly safe vitamin and mineral supplements?"