Health: Vitamin B6: the debate goes on

Three million people take it. Nutritionists recommend it. But the Government won't make a decision over safe levels. Why are so many well-informed people arguing?

LAST WEEK the curtain fell on yet another episode in the long- running vitamin B6 debate. The Government has now decided that the nation's health can safely survive another two years without any decision on how much vitamin B6 can be taken without risk of side-effects. Meanwhile a new committee will look at safe levels for all vitamins and minerals.

An estimated 3 million people regularly take high doses of 100mg-200mg of B6. Most of them are women who claim it helps with menstrual tension, but men at risk from heart disease may take it too. Nutritionists also claim that high doses are useful in treating other conditions, including depression, morning sickness and the side-effects of HRT.

"Our advice is still that the safe level is 10mg", said a spokesman from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (Maff). Such advice is, however, a climb-down from a year ago when Jeff Rooker, the newly appointed food safety minister, declared that in the light of advice from a scientific advisory committee there was a risk of nerve damage from overdosing. And within a few months the Government was planning to ban the general sale of larger amounts of B6.

This change sparked off a vociferous media and lobbying campaign. Some 110,000 letters were written to MPs and early day motions were signed by an almost unprecedented 200 MPs. In May the decision was looked at again by the Commons agriculture select committee, which roundly condemned the 10mg limit as "scientifically unjustifiable".

"Rooker was furious when we got the committee to take the matter up" declared Christopher Whitehouse, whose company, Good News Communications, handled the parliamentary lobbying.

"Pressure was put on the Labour members to vote against an investigation, but it turned out that one of them regularly took 200mg of B6 daily and another used other supplements, so that was the Labour majority gone."

Out of 49 submissions, 45 opposed the Government's proposal and the committee issued a damning report. They recommended 100mg as a safe level and lambasted Professor Frank Woods, head of the original government advisory committee, as "curt almost to the point of rudeness in responding to articulate and well argued criticisms."

So what is the poor consumer to think? The Committee on Toxicity (COT), consisting of 16 eminent scientists, says 10mg. But the B6 Task Group of 230 British doctors and scientists criticised COT's findings, and the evidence of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS)' report on B6 involved 50 nutritional and medical experts found no adverse effects below 200mg and recommended a level of 100mg " to be super-safe".

How can experts come to such different conclusions? Partly because of a clash of medical cultures. Traditionally the medical profession has never taken seriously the "supplement and extra vitamins" approach to health. It is frequently said that there is no hard evidence that exceeding the recommended daily allowance does any more than give you very expensive urine.

But, increasingly, research is suggesting that extra supplements can have a protective effect. One, cited in the NAS report, found that not only was B6 effective in reducing heart attacks, but the more you took, the greater the protection, up to about 100 mg. Last year another study found that massive amounts of vitamin E also protected against heart attack.

What is more, the hard evidence for limiting B6 turned out to be shaky. In the end COT's position rested on two cases, both of which were discredited.

All this has raised the issue of the quality of advice that the Government is getting. Lady Mar, a vociferous campaigner on the dangers of organophosphates, feels that the whole system of advisory committees, with senior scientists meeting in private, needs reforming. "The professors are looking for money for research and a major source of funds are the chemical and drug companies. The committee needs to be more open, and drawn from a wider cross-section."

The Group on Vitamins and Minerals, minus Professor Woods, follows exactly these principles, so the B6 debate may yet have a useful ending.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'