European consumers have always had a strong interest in health and wellness. But when it comes to vitamins and minerals, are they getting the treatment they deserve?
During COVID-19, European’s use of dietary supplements more than doubled — from 31% to 69% — as people sought to boost their immune systems and keep the virus at bay. Peak demand was often driven by social posts rather than scientific fact, creating a boom for products like Vitamin D.
Since 2002, the EU has harmonised legislation around vitamins using the Food Supplements Directive 2002/46/EC . This protects consumers against potential health risks and ensures that they are not provided with misleading information. However, it primarily covers content, hygiene and contamination laws. It does not apply the types of stringent pharma-regulation required for medical products.
Monitoring current safety trends
During 2020 and 2021, there were 24 alerts involving vitamins and minerals. 42% of these were serious. The most common cause was an excessive vitamin level, typically for A, D3, B6, B12 and B9.
There is also industry concern around cross-ingredient interaction in complex formulas which can lead to issues with product stability. According to one industry player, merely 10% of finished products have been subject to end-product stability testing.
In addition, consumers are increasingly sourcing cheap supplements through online marketplaces. To keep costs down, it is less likely that these sources have given much attention to stability testing and quality assurance around shelf-life.
The issue of stability
Why is this important? A vitamin’s properties can change depending on its environment and how it is treated, especially when combined with other chemicals. Consequently, properties and potency levels can alter while on the shelf. Consumers can end up with less active ingredients than they pay for. In some circumstances, they could also end up taking too low a dosage, leading to a deficiency which could also impact their health.
With more ingredients to make them palatable, popular vitamin formats like ‘gummies’ are more likely to suffer from stability issues. This can tempt some manufacturers to put in a lot more of certain vitamins than labelled as they seek to ensure that the product provides at least 100% of the labelled amounts throughout its shelf life.
Should consumers be concerned?
Some reports link excessive nutrient intakes to health problems, including an elevated risk for some types of cancer, making this practice potentially hazardous. It also raises the question of whether vitamins and minerals should be treated as food supplements (as they are now) or as medicines, which would involve much more stringent testing and controls.
With health professionals in Europe increasingly recommending vitamin and mineral supplements to their patients to combat and prevent health challenges, it is likely that we will see further work on harmonising standards and clarifying grey areas.
As usage and production increases, manufacturers and retailers should continue to monitor their products to ensure dosage accuracy and stability and be prepared for recalls especially if their products include vitamins which can be harmful if taken in excess.
Find out more about this topic and other food related safety trends in our latest recall index here.