Guest article

Vitamin D and the opportunity for food manufacturers

Fizz Thompson is clinical director at the National Osteoporosis Society

Foods that can contribute towards good bone health could have an increasing role to play in UK diets. 

The National Osteoporosis Society (NOS) estimates that 3M people in the UK have the condition and that one-in-two women and one-in-five men will break a bone during their lifetime.

Interest in vitamin D rose in 2016 after a Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition report stated that the UK population was not getting enough.

The report said that, because it’s difficult for people to meet the 10 microgram (µg) recommendation from consuming foods naturally containing or fortified with vitamin D, people should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10µg of the vitamin in the autumn and winter.

However, the report also prompted concerns from health officials that 10µg daily may not be achievable through diet alone. As a result, further guidance is needed on how people can get enough vitamin D and what actions can be taken to make this happen.

Fortified foods can be crucial

According to the British Nutrition Foundation, fortified foods can be crucial for people whose diets lack key nutrients. Research suggests, for example, that around 50% of all UK adults are lacking in vitamin D to some degree with deficiencies in children a particular concern. 

The NOS’s guidance for patients recommends people get vitamin D from sensible sunlight exposure, from food and drink containing vitamin D  – either naturally or fortified – and from vitamin D supplements.

Vitamin D opportunity

For the food manufacturing industry, vitamin D presents a marketing opportunity and initiatives to do more to raise awareness about the foods high in vitamin D would be welcome, as would a push to improve food labelling to highlight vitamin D levels to help people achieve their daily Recommended Nutrient Intake.

The charity has also been encouraging debate on the topic. Last year, we held a meeting with Members of Parliament, clinicians and scientists calling for a national level working group to look at how people in the UK can get the vitamin D they need.

Meantime, for the food manufacturing industry, vitamin D presents a marketing opportunity and initiatives to do more to raise awareness about the foods high in vitamin D would be welcome, as would a push to improve food labelling to highlight vitamin D levels to help people achieve their daily Recommended Nutrient Intake (RNI).

The past few years have seen a number of initiatives from manufacturers keen to target older consumers by fortifying products. Launches including Yoplait’s Calin+ yogurt, Tesco’s vitamin D enhanced mushrooms and Marks & Spencer’s bread all looked to tap into demand.

But the challenge to truly make a difference to the consumer is to develop food products which help them to achieve the UK recommended levels of vitamin D.  It is important that the vitamin D contained in food is properly absorbed. This presents a clear opportunity for manufacturers to do more to ensure that fortified vitamin D is absorbed in order for food to make a difference to bone health.

Opportunity for manufacturers

While a focus on vitamin D and calcium would be welcome, the food industry should also be looking to a whole range of other vitamins and minerals which are emerging as playing a crucial role in good bone health.

Vitamins such as C, D, B2, B6, B12 and E, folate, calcium, magnesium and also potassium play a holistic role in bone health helping not just to build bone strength, but to help with muscle development, balance and a whole host of other areas beneficial to those wanting to address the problems posed by osteoporosis.

It’s not just fortified foods, however. According to a recent report, shoppers spent an additional £176M during 2016 on fresh fruit. Eating a healthy balanced diet is important and championing the vitamin D and mineral benefits of fruit or salad boxes could support continued growth in this category.

Osteoporosis is a growing problem, and good nutrition can play a part in keeping bones strong. Food manufacturers certainly have an opportunity – and it will be those who can market a product that delivers the RNI and demonstrate good absorption levels that will makes a real difference for the consumer – and we’d love to hear about it!

About the author

Fizz Thompson is clinical director, National Osteoporosis Society, with responsibilty for the delivery of all the society’s clinical services. After training as a nurse, Thompson worked for the National Health Service for more than 30 years, in operational nursing, managerial roles. She worked for 10 years as an executive director, focusing on patient care, quality, governance and patient safety.

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