Lack of the “sunshine vitamin” has been linked to osteoporosis, diabetes, asthma, multiple sclerosis and cancer among others, so preventing and combating deficiencies should be made a public health priority, according to experts at a European parliament conference on vitamin D.
Kevin Cashman, professor of food and health at University College Cork, who is quoted by The Parliament magazine, said that improved intake of naturally vitamin D-rich foods, such as oily fish, was “the least likely strategy” to counteract deficiency as there were few D-rich food sources and they were not frequently consumed by many.
Also greater exposure to sunlight, which helps the body produce the vitamin, holds the risk of skin damage.
Instead, additional measures such as fortification of foods, along with education and raising awareness were thought necessary, but would require more research and change of regulations.
At present, dairy products are the most popular vehicle for vitamin D fortification with juices, cereals, and baby food following behind.
But a recent Frost and Sullivan report said that regulatory standards were the main factor holding back the potential boom of the vitamin D market.
Cashman said: “Supplementation is another option. This has been shown to significantly improve vitamin D intake across a variety of age, race, ethnic and gender groups.
“However, evidence seems to suggest that the population intake of vitamin D from supplements is quite low.
“This is a function mainly of the relatively low vitamin D content of most supplements (2.5- 7.5 μg) in some countries relative to requirement.”
EU citizens living in northerly latitudes, for example, may have a higher dietary requirement.
Cashman said that fortified foods constitute the largest contributor to dietary vitamin D intake in the US population - with fortified milk contributing 40 per cent to 64 per cent - but the level used may be too low.
He added: “We need to model European food and vitamin D intake data to ascertain which food vehicles and what level of vitamin D addition will ensure an effective but safe rise in serum vitamin D status in European populations.
“So there is a need to invest in such research. We need to explore vitamin D fortification as a means of eradicating serious vitamin D deficiency in the European populations as a matter of urgency.”
The European commission, with the European food safety agency, is currently working on defining maximum amounts for vitamin D intake, consulting scientific data and stakeholders.
Mark Eyskens, former Belgian prime minister and chair of the PA International Foundation, which co-organised the conference, said tackling widespread D deficiency should be taken up by the forthcoming Belgian EU presidency and incorporated in its programme.
Prevention measures are considered to be low cost and low risk, with potentially large rewards for health.