The use of food supplements is on the rise in Europe and this has prompted calls from stakeholders and lawmakers to revise the 20-year-old legislation currently in place and make sure it is applied uniformly across the bloc.
The food supplement market has been steadily growing for a long time and the directive regulating the matter needs a revision, said Kerli Ats, an Estonian member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).
“[The directive] is not applied uniformly across the EU. If the EU internal market is to function properly, it is essential for the legislation to be applied in a uniform way to enable safe products to circulate freely and unsafe products to be withdrawn from the market,” Ats told a recent EURACTIV event.
She added that her institution has already recommended an update of the 20-year-old legislation, highlighting that the EESC also wants better information both for consumers to be able to use supplements safely and for authorities to step up monitoring, testing, and surveillance of products for the protection of consumers.
“[We especially need] an update of the definition of food supplements, including (…) scrutiny of a new product to be placed on the market and setting up a food monitoring system that collects adverse reactions and thereby increases the protection of public health products. Ingredient safety must be a top requirement and should be determined on a scientific basis,” Ats said
For the socialist MEP Sara Cerdas, another issue at stake is that food supplements are regulated by both the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA), depending on the supplement included in the product.
“This is a grey area. The food part is not as regulated as medicines and we need to do more work in this area,” Cerdas said.
“A supplement will only help you if you need it,” she added, highlighting that a citizen in the grocery store [doesn’t necessarily] have the ability to understand how much to take and why.
“Our response should be better regulation of these products, so we not only see them as food supplements and as food but also as something that will interact with your homeostasis [ed: your balanced physiological state],” she concluded.
While food supplements can be an excellent way to cover deficiencies such as iron levels, the diverse range of supplements found in supermarkets, health shops, and pharmacies, can make it nearly impossible to decipher what is good for an individual.
There are plenty of vitamins and minerals that many people do not get enough of such as Vitamin D and Omega 3, said Filip Calder, professor of nutritional immunology at the University of Southhampton
“A deficiency in all of these sorts of nutrients, minerals, vitamins, omega-3, leads to disease, but we can have a grey area between sufficient intake and deficient intake,” Calder said.
That inadequacy is linked to impaired immune, cognitive, or physical function, he added, while the other panellists recommended getting advice from medical professionals before deciding on what supplement is needed.
COVID-19 increased interest in food supplements
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, health has risen on the agenda and this has helped to increase awareness of food supplements.
It has also revealed that a large part of the European population does not have a sufficiently balanced intake of vitamins and minerals, said Bernd Haber, board member of Food Supplements Europe (FSE).
“If we want the European population to be healthy and resilient, there is a need to look at additional ways to address the gaps. And this includes, of course, food supplementation,” Haber said, using the lack of vitamin D in many adults as an example.
The vitamin is known for its benefits for healthy bones and was a part of the UK government’s health recommendations during the pandemic, Calder recalled.
“It was very clear that people should take a vitamin D supplement at the recommended level of 15 micrograms per day, and that applied to all of the population. So they did recognise that people would be spending more time indoors and that it, therefore, was something to consider,” Calder said.
In northern countries like Estonia, vitamin D is recommended during winter times anyway, said EESC’s Ats. But during the pandemic, doctors also advised people to take more vitamin C.
“It is very good for the common cold and we saw that a lot of people were buying and eating vitamin C to try and get away from COVID,” Ats concluded
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Zoran Radosavljevic]