National survey highlights vitamin D deficiency fears

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Vitamin D has been linked to bone health
Vitamin D has been linked to bone health

Related tags Vitamin d deficiency Public health england Food industry Nutrition

UK Vitamin D deficiency is a growing problem, indicated by the latest data from the National Diet & Nutrition Survey (NDNS), but the food industry could help, nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton claims.

According to comprehensive NDNS figures​, the proportion of adults aged 19-64 consuming less than the government’s recommended minimum level of Vitamin D has grown from 20% in the last survey to 23%.

In addition, 22% of children aged 11-18 have low Vitamin D status, with the proportion of both groups with low intake rising to 40% in the winter months.

Ruxton told “Four in 10 people have an actual deficiency in Vitamin D. That’s extremely worrying.”

Robust scientific evidence linked Vitamin D to bone health and the European Food Safety Authority allowed products containing it to claim they helped the body’s immune system, said Ruxton.

Cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease

Emerging science also associated deficiency in the nutrient with increased risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, although this was at a fledgling stage, she added.

Although an exact recommended daily adult intake for Vitamin D has not been set, EU labelling guidelines suggest 5mg for Vitamin D. However, the latest NDNS numbers, published by Public Health England on May 14, suggest the average UK figure was much lower.

During the summer, adults derived 90% of their Vitamin D from sunlight and 10% from diet, said Ruxton. But in winter, with far less direct sunlight, consumers were 100% reliant on body reserves and the amount they ate, she said.

Another connected concern highlighted by the NDNS data was that people were falling way short of their recommended intake of one portion of oily fish a week. Average consumption among 19-64 year-olds was reported in the region of 54g weekly. Oily fish was a major source of Vitamin D, Ruxton said.

‘Food industry could have role’

The food industry could do more to promote foods rich in Vitamin D, such as oily fish and eggs, and adding it to products, she said.

That said, professor Judith Buttriss, director general of the British Nutrition Foundation, who also acknowledged the problem of Vitamin D deficiency, cautioned: “… We should be wary of widespread addition to other food vehicles however until SACN ​[the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition] has completed its review of the evidence and published its risk assessment.

This is already the topic of a SACN working group due to report during the next year.”

Kate Halliwell, nutrition and health manager at the Food & Drink Federation, said: “The food industry is already playing a key role in helping consumers to increase their Vitamin D levels, with more than a third of our dietary intake coming from fortified foods.

“Foods fortified with Vitamin D will be clearly labelled and the levels in a portion will be declared in the nutrition panel to help consumer choice.”

Separately, figures suggested on average adults were exceeding recommended levels of added sugar and salt consumption. However, these were lower than reported in the previous NDNS, suggesting progress was being made.

‘Lagging behind’

On salt, Buttriss said: Many sectors have made a major contribution to achieving the reductions seen to date but others are lagging behind. There is still a way to go before the 6g​ [daily] target is reached. Food industry has a role to play but our food choices and what we do in the home are also important.”

And on sugar, while she recognised consumption had dropped, energy intake levels remained higher than recommended in most groups, especially teenagers and young adults. “As with salt, clearly more can be done to ensure sugar levels in foods are appropriate, and consumers are guided in making healthy choices,” ​she said.

Ruxton acknowledged more needed to be done to cut sugar intake, and that this was likely to grab more media headlines, because of the current intense interest in the topic. However, she said the Vitamin D issue was more concerning.

The latest NDNS covers four years from 2008-2012, including thousands of people from a cross-section of ages, social classes and regions. Many of these agreed to blood and urine tests as well as keeping a food diary.

Visit the Public Health England site for the full survey results​.

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