A growing number of medical experts from leading universities, both in Ireland and abroad, are urging governments to implement updated guidelines on taking vitamin D supplements. Though the experts believe that vitamin D won’t prevent or treat COVID-19, there is growing evidence which suggests that optimal levels of vitamin D can potentially reduce the risk of infection and serious illness from Covid-19 by boosting the immune system. It becomes especially important when accounting for high degree of vitamin D deficiency in many countries across all age groups, meaning that most adults are at increased risk. Vitamin D deficiency is especially prevalent in the Northern hemisphere due to scarcity of sunlight exposure in the wintertime and few foods being high in vitamin D, which makes it increasingly hard for the population to get required levels of vitamin D without using supplements or consuming fortified foods.
Can we combine everyday foods with health boosting nutrients without compromising quality or safety? Another way of tackling vitamin D deficiency is through food fortification, the addition of nutritional ingredients into foods. The practice of fortifying certain foods such as milk, bread and orange juice with additional nutrients, is common in Finland, Sweden, Australia, the US and Canada. One major benefit of fortifying foods when compared to taking supplements is that it eliminates the need for developing and maintaining the regular habit of taking supplements, effectively steadily eliminating the vitamin D deficiency with minimal effort from the population. Fortification also has a wider reach as people don’t need to change their consumption patterns in order to get higher vitamin D from their diet. A 2019 study at the University of Birmingham, led by Magda Aguiar, projected a 25% reduction in UK cases of vitamin D deficiency over the next 90 years if flour fortification with vitamin D was to be adopted. However, the process of food fortification needs to be gradual, especially if new fortified foods were to be rolled out during periods of increased supplement consumption, such as one brought forward in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news is that scientific research is well underway with extensive projects aiming to confirm if food fortification alone could prevent vitamin D deficiency, and improving nutrition and public health.
One such project was ODIN, an EU funded project that involved a multi-disciplinary team of 30 partners from 18 countries, with aims to provide high quality scientific evidence to prevent vitamin D deficiency in European citizens and improve nutrition and public health through food. Led by University College Cork, ODIN project also aimed to improve nutrition and public health through food by establishing an internationally standardised analytical platform for 25OHD (Calcifediol – vitamin D).
As a partner in ODIN project Creme Global focussed on using proprietary advanced dietary models to assess the impact of multiple scenarios of optimising vitamin D intakes via biofortification of selected food products. This involved assessing the changes in vitamin D content of the food supply on vitamin D intakes accounting for diversity across the European latitude (~34-70°N)and investigating the consumer safety of a range of fortification and dietary supplementation scenarios into the European food supply.
Groundwork laid in projects such as ODIN could certainly expedite the implementation of forward looking plans to combine everyday foods with health boosting nutrients while maintaining highest levels of consumer safety.