Should we swallow it?

How high-dose supplements can help

Old-age pensioners lurking around the back of pubs, cash in hand to score illegal substances. Spotty teenagers busted in their bedrooms by customs officers for ordering outlawed pills to treat their acne over the internet. These are a couple of the more fevered scenarios being proposed at the moment as a result of an EU directive that slipped into English law almost unnoticed at the end of last month.

At first sight, the Food Supplement Directive (C5-0640/2001) couldn't appear more boring and innocuous. Concerned with harmonising the permitted levels of supplements throughout the EU, it is packed with soporific phrases such as "the maximum and minimum amounts of vitamins and minerals referred to in paragraphs 1, 2 and 3 shall be adopted in accordance with the procedure referred to in Article 13(2)". But in fact this is inflammatory stuff. If past reactions are any thing to go by, MPs' post bags will be bulging, e-mail servers will be overloading with petitions, and celebrities will be denouncing it at photo-opportunities.

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin E for general health is 22 international units (IU). But if you are worried about your heart, at present you can act on evidence which indicates that taking 800 IU of vitamin E may reduce the risk of heart disease, and buy high-dose vitamin E capsules over the counter. Or you can buy high levels of selenium, which may be protective against cancer, or B6, which may help combat PMT and multiple sclerosis. But if the legislative train that was set in motion this month isn't derailed in some way, within three years such purchases will become illegal.

"This is an issue of freedom," says Sue Croft of Consumers For Health Choice, one of several groups campaigning on this issue. "There is no reason in health or safety to restrict the sale of these nutrients. If they are outlawed plenty of people, myself included, will keep on taking them." The campaigners, who also come from groups such as Campaign for Health Freedom (www.healthfreedommovement.com) and the magazine What Doctors Don't Tell You, have considerable experience – the battle over UK vitamins is a long-running one.

The fact that there is no legal upper limit on the levels of supplements that can be sold in the UK has long been a sore point with the Brussels bureaucracy. In most European states levels are strictly controlled, generally being set at no more than twice the RDA. This makes it hard for vitamin suppliers to sell in all member states. The stated aim of this directive is to standardise the industry and create a level playing field for trade, rather than to set a safe, healthy ceiling for the consumption of supplements. That means drastically reducing the levels allowed in the UK.

The proposal provokes remarkably strong emotions – in fact, the tone on the fringes of the campaign becomes positively evangelical. Dr Bernard Rath's organisation sells megavitamin supplements which he controversially claims are an actual cure for cancer and heart disease. He claims to have discovered a revolutionary new form of medicine called "cellular medicine".

"For the first time in history, I have proved a direct link between chronic vitamin deficiency and the development of most common health problems," he declares (www.drrath.com/new_default/new_main_ uk/def_uk.htm). Dr Rath believes that this directive is a plot against him by the pharmaceutical companies. Since his treatments will lead to the collapse of the drugs industry, he claims, they have lobbied Brussels to have his "natural, side-effect-free remedies declared illegal".

Rath's response highlights the dramatic shift in our ideas about health and medicine over the last decade. Health has become just another consumer issue. People like to shop around. Twenty per cent of adults are now estimated to take supplements in the UK; encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their health now appears to be government policy.

The internet has made the latest medical findings available to everyone, and results continue to indicate that supplements can be effective, both in preventing and treating certain disorders. Many studies also show that individuals vary widely in their requirements. Yet contrastingly, the directive clings to an older, more traditional view; it states: "An adequate and varied diet could, under normal circumstances, provide all necessary nutrients."

Setting one level for the whole continent is unhelpful when, for example, the vitamin D requirements of those in the North are inevitably greater than those of people living in the sunny South. And might not children fed on the all-too-common UK diet of high fat and refined carbohydrates have different vitamin and mineral needs from children brought up on a Mediterranean diet?

The rise in the use of supplements has been driven entirely by consumer demand. The medical profession has been at best indifferent, at worst hostile. A major factor in the increased use of supplements has been growing concern over the dangerous side effects of drug treatments. The directive asserts that "excessive intake of vitamins and minerals may result in adverse effects and therefore necessitate the setting of maximum safe levels". But campaigners point out how safe vitamins are when compared with drugs. An estimated 100,000 Americans and 6,000 Britons are killed by reaction to prescription drugs every year.

The directive, although already part of UK law, has not yet set any levels – that will be done over the next three years. It also contains a list of permitted "nutrients and nutrient sources". Anything not on the list will be banned when the directive comes into force in 2005. The existing list, according to the campaigners, omits 300 nutrients currently available in the UK. It includes, for instance, no "chelated" minerals – those which are easier to absorb because they are attached to a biological molecule. Manufacturers can submit dossiers over the next three years, putting the case to add a nutrient. But each dossier is expensive and current estimates are that resources are available to submit a total of just 14.

So what will people do when the legislation comes in? Well, they could take an awful lot of pills. Getting a gram of vitamin C, if the new levels are twice the RDA, would mean taking eight tablets. That would probably cost eight times as much as at present, since the cost of the ingredients is only a small part of the total price. When a black market inevitably emerges, controls over ingredients and quality will vanish.

Vitamin C (RDA 40mg)
Out of 38 trials, 37 found that the colds of subjects who took over 1,000mg of vitamin C a day cleared up more quickly and were less severe.

Vitamin B6 (RDA 1.2mg) and Folic acid (RDA 200mcg)
High levels of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood can indicateheart-attack risk. Taking a combination of 25mg of vitamin B6 and 400mcg of folic acid can lower homocysteine levels.

Vitamin D (RDA 200 1U)
A new study shows that African-American women in the US are likely to suffer from dangerously low levels of vitamin D.Even women who took the RDA of supplements still had low levels. The researchers recommended increasing the RDA to 1,000 IU.

Riboflavin (vitamin B2 RDA 1.2mg)
There is clinical evidence that giving schizophrenics doses of 2,000mg a day can greatly improve their condition.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Project Coordinator

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

    Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

    £350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

    Embedded Linux Engineer

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

    Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

    £50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz