Report urges policy makers to find a bigger role for supplements in healthcare

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Food Supplements Europe (FSE) have made available a report that identifies supplementation as a cost-efficient approach that may ease the burden of chronic disease care on the health system.

The report​ entitled “How food supplements can help contribute to public health in Europe,​” believes with scientific evidence in place, the benefits of supplementation can now be leveraged and integrated into policy.

“Business as usual in nutrition is not working,”​ the report claimed. “Despite the best efforts of health educators, significant groups in the populations are either at risk of deficiency, or failing to achieve optimal nutrient intakes.

“This is having an impact on health outcomes, particularly for vulnerable groups of people, and those experiencing social deprivation who tend to have less healthy diets.”

Conflicting studies continue to dog the use of supplements in a healthcare setting along with budgetary concerns and approval issues in respective countries.

In mid-2017, the UK’s National Health system (NHS) made the decision to scrap omega-3 fatty acids, lutein and antioxidant supplements along with homeopathy and herbal treatments claiming that they were “ineffective”​ and were “low value”​ treatments.

The plans intended to save the service €224m (£200m) a year in which the governing body’s chief executive described homeopathy as “at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds”.​

Meanwhile France’s voluntary health insurance (VHI), which provides wider coverage for medical goods and services not covered by the country’s statutory health insurance (SHI), such as omega-3 fatty acids and surgery for myopia.

EFSA definition

Current EU law restricts food supplements for use in correcting nutritional deficiencies, maintaining an adequate intake of certain nutrients, or to support specific physiological functions.

“They are not medicinal products and as such cannot exert a pharmacological, immunological or metabolic action,”​ the European Food and Safety Authority states.

“Therefore their use is not intended to treat or prevent diseases in humans or to modify physiological functions.”

However, FSE, an industry group that represents the European Food Supplement sector of the International Alliance of Dietary/ Food Supplement Association (IADSA,) argue the use of supplements in a medical or health setting would drive down health costs and improve population wellbeing.

The report cites current health spending in Western Europe at €1.4tn annually in 2015 with predictions of a rise by 4% to nearly €1.8tn a year by 2020.

With the added health burden of an ageing population, the report warned these levels of spending would become unsustainable.

“Four in ten nutrition-related diseases are established before the age of 70 years while 30% of cancers and up to 80% of early deaths due to heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes are believed to be preventable,”​ the report said.

“Dietary advice remains the central tenet of public health nutrition. Yet, despite the consistent promotion of mainstream dietary advice, the reality is that millions of people are falling short of recommendations for key nutrients.”

Small victories

The report cites progress made particularly in vitamin D supplementation, which is now broadly recommended across the European Union.

Despite the work achieved in this area, the FSE recognised the challenge ahead, pointing to dietary surveys that identify specific nutrient intake as posing a concern.

A review​ of 21 European countries found that none of the countries met more than 40% of the recommendations for macro or micronutrients, illustrating just how far removed populations are from Dietary Reference Values (DRVs).

Indeed, global estimates​ revealed that only 20% of populations met targets for omega-3 fatty acids, and very low blood levels of these are common across Europe.

Analyses commissioned by FSE  revealed significant savings in healthcare costs – up to €64.5bn over 5 years – by providing targeted daily supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils), phytosterols, or calcium + vitamin D.

FSE director of regulatory and scientific affairs Patrick Coppens said back in 2016, the findings would be difficult for EU policy makers to overlook

“That realisation [that health care savings can be made through supplementation] I think is new. And it's that realisation that we want to bring over with this study​,”​ ​he said. ​

“This is economic data you can hardly ignore. It is something we think should be realised by EU policy makers.”​ ​

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