Brussels, 10 November 2003
Proposal for EU rules about adding vitamins and minerals to foods - frequently asked questions
(see also IP/03/1516)
Why are vitamins and minerals added to food?
Vitamins and minerals are usually added to foods for three main reasons. They may replace some of the nutritional value lost when the food is being manufactured or stored. For example, iron and several types of vitamin B are added to wheat flour after processing. This is known as restoration.
They can be added to substitute foods that resemble ordinary food. The best known example of this is margarine. Vitamins A and D are added to margarine during production so it will have a similar vitamin level to butter.
Nutrients may also be added to foods to fortify or enrich them even if the vitamins and minerals added are not normally contained in that food. Calcium is often added to fruit juices and this can provide an important source for people who do not eat dairy products.
Many studies show that not all EU citizens have a diet which provides all the nutrients they need. The growing popularity of convenience foods indicates that people have less time to shop for and prepare a meal which offers plenty of nutritional variety. Dietary needs have also changed. For example, the UK National Food Survey of 1998 showed a 30% decline in the average energy intakes of British adults, from 2,700 calories in 1960 to 1,800 in 1998. As people eat less they may also receive less of the vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy.
It is estimated that in countries where manufacturers voluntarily add vitamins A and D to margarine and spreadable fats this contributes about 20% of the recommended intake(1) of vitamin A and about 30% of vitamin D for very important groups of the population. Iron-enriched breakfast cereals have become, in the 1990s, the principal source of iron in young children's diets in the UK, replacing the meat that was the main source of iron in the 1950s. Foods enriched or fortified with vitamins and minerals can therefore make a significant contribution to nutrient intakes.
What would the proposed Regulation do?
The proposed Regulation sets out harmonised EU rules for adding vitamins and minerals. It would create a list of the vitamins and minerals which could be added to foods and, establishes the criteria for setting the minimum and maximum levels for such nutrients added to food, on the basis of scientific advice. All foods which contain added nutrients would have to be labelled to inform consumers about their nutritional value.
The proposed Regulation would not apply to foods intended to meet special nutritional requirements. Examples of these are: foods for infants and young children, foods to promote weight loss or foods for special medical purposes. These are covered by separate EU legislation(2). There is also EU legislation(3) dealing with food supplements, such as vitamin pills, which are clearly sold as concentrated sources of nutrients.
What about other substances added to food?
In recent years there has been a trend for substances such as herbal extracts, amino acids and others to be added to foods. These substances are often found naturally in food but they are sometimes added to foods in high concentrations. Their addition is usually associated with a claim that the substance and the product may have a good effect on the customer's health.
There is currently very little scientific evidence to show whether these substances are safe when they are taken in large quantities. The proposed Regulation would establish a procedure involving the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) which, for the first time, would allow the examination of these substances to assess any possible risk to human health. EFSA is an independent agency which advises the European Commission on food safety issues.
Would the proposed Regulation affect compulsory fortification in some Member States?
No. Manufacturers often add nutrients to food voluntarily but in some Member States it is compulsory to add certain vitamins or minerals to some foods, such as adding the mineral iodine to salt to prevent iodine deficiency diseases. The EU Regulation does not affect the compulsory addition of nutrients.
Would there be any restrictions on adding vitamins and minerals to certain foods?
Vitamins, minerals and other substances could be added to foods as long as the product did not pose a risk to the health of consumers. An important exception would be fresh food such as fruit, vegetables or meat that should be preserved in their natural state. Adding vitamins or minerals to alcoholic drinks would not be allowed in line with efforts to combat alcohol abuse.
Consumer organisations and some Member States are against adding nutrients to foods high in salt, sugars or fat which do not have a “desirable” nutritional profile.
They fear that adding vitamins or minerals would make these foods more attractive. Earlier this year proposed EU legislation took these concerns into consideration in the proposed rules on nutrition and health claims made for food(4) by proposing to establish a nutritional profile for foods, taking into account their salt, fat or sugar content. Foods with added vitamins and minerals would have to respect the labelling rules as outlined in the proposal on nutrition and health claims. This would mean that foods which did not have a “desirable” nutritional profile would not be able to make such claims.
(1)This refers to the Population Reference Intake (PRI).
(2)Dietetic Foods intended for particular nutritional uses are covered by Council Directive 89/398/EEC which was amended by Directives 96/84/EC and 1999/41/EC.
(3)Food supplements are covered by Directive 2000/46.
(4)The proposed Regulation 2003/0165 (COD) on health claims was published on 16 July 2003.