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WASHINGTON - In a decision that could roil the food and dietary supplement industries, a federal advisory panel on Thursday recommended that the amount of vitamins and minerals recommended as part of a healthy diet be drastically changed to more closely resemble the needs of an average person.
The advisory panel urged the Food and Drug Administration to change the way it calculates the recommended daily value for nutrients, which are listed on "nutrition facts" labels on the sides of packaged foods and on "supplemental facts" labels affixed to vitamins.
In the decade since the government adopted food labels on the sides of packages, it has based its recommended daily allowances for nutrients on whatever segment of the population needs the most of a given vitamin or mineral, the logic being that it would cover the needs of almost every individual.
The problem with that formula, the panel said in its report, is the recommended daily allowances overstate the needs of 97 to 98 percent of the population.
Under the proposed changes, the government would base its recommendations for daily intake of vitamins and minerals on the average needs of the populace. The "recommended dietary allowance" would become "estimated daily requirement."
"They took the highest of the highs, which was usually for growing males," said Dr. Irwin Rosenberg, dean of the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Freidman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and chair of the advisory panel. "The result is, in many cases those numbers highly overestimated the actual requirement, and in some ways made foods that didn't have that much in them seem underpowered with respect to that nutrient."
If the FDA adopts the changes, the recommended daily values of some vitamins and minerals would change dramatically. For instance, the amount of iron and Vitamin B-12 that is recommended each day would be cut by two-thirds, while the amount of zinc and phosphorous would be cut in half.
The recommendations for fiber and Vitamin C, meanwhile, would increase slightly under the proposed changes.
John Hathcock, vice president for scientific and international affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a vitamin trade group, said he had only seen the executive summary of the panel's report, which was released late Thursday afternoon. But he said the recommendation to change the way the FDA configures daily values for nutrients would have huge implications "for a lot of people, including our industry."
"It's ridiculous," Hathcock said. "It seems to me that the label ought to tell people that if you eat this amount you'll be adequately nourished. What this would do is tell the average consumer that they have a 50 percent chance of taking more than they need and a 50 percent chance of taking less than what they need."
If the changes are approved, Hathcock said, it would force his industry to relabel its packages and possibly reconfigure its formulas.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-for-profit watchdog group, called the proposed changes "drastic" and said they would likely cause companies to reduce the amount of vitamins and minerals in foods if they are adopted by the FDA.
"I'm concerned that these drastic changes indicate a lack of concern for the public's health," Jacobson said in a statement. "The numbers previously had been set so that just about everybody would be protected. This is much less protective."
The proposed reduction in daily value for Vitamin D would give senior citizens only half of what they need, while the proposed change for iron would be a third of what women of childbearing age need, he said.
But Rosenberg disputed claims that the changes would cause vitamin deficiencies in some segments of society, such as pregnant women or the elderly.
"This is not going to deprive the population of iron," Rosenberg said. "This is not meant to direct diets. It's to allow people to make comparisons from one product to another and how it fits into the daily diet."
He argued that using an average person was more appropriate because many people could be getting more nutrients than they need under the current guidelines. "Obviously, nutrients are not safe at all values," he said.
The report says that long-term, excessive use of vitamins and minerals can cause diarrhea and liver abnormalities, but that more research was needed.
The panel was convened about a year ago at the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, a private organization that frequently conducts research for the federal government. The FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Canadian health officials asked the panel to figure out how to incorporate the latest science on nutrient intake onto food labels in both countries.
Since it instituted nutrition labels on food packages in the early 1990s, the FDA has relied on Institute of Medicine data from 1968 to determine the appropriate daily values for nutrients. The Institute of Medicine has been updating its research on vitamins and minerals for the last six years.
The FDA is considering wide-ranging changes to the food label in an effort to make it easier to use and to help curb obesity in America.
(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.