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.

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
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

    Java Developer - 1 year contract

    £350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

    Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

    £17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

    SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

    £450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

    Project Manager - Pensions

    £32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone