The Dangers of Vitamin, Mineral, and Additive Overload and Product Mislabeling

By Steven Di Joseph -

When consumers, especially parents, think of vitamins, additives, and foods that are “fortified,” the common belief is that these are all good things. While some are intended to speed up the recovery from, or even prevent, various illnesses, others are claimed to improve the health of specific bodily organs or systems, or replenish vital nutrients.

Unfortunately, amid the hype associated with these substances, no one spends very much time thinking about how much of each is consumed on a daily basis or if there is a limit beyond which their cumulative effect becomes potentially dangerous or toxic.

According to the American Dietetic Association, approximately one out of every two people takes dietary supplements. Most of these are in the form of vitamins and minerals.

If however, a person is already eating a relatively healthy diet, or even a somewhat deficient one, taking additional vitamins or supplements (either by choice or as a result of “fortified” foods and drinks) might be a reason for concern according to a growing number of medical experts. Inadequate or misleading labeling is also a potential problem as is the inclusion of substances that are of questionable value or safety.

Faulty or Misleading Labels

In a 2008 investigation/inspection of dozens of food companies, the FDA found that despite strict labeling laws, as many as 25% of food manufacturers failed to list common ingredients that can cause potentially fatal allergic reactions.

Since these ingredients may only be found in minute traces, manufacturers often omit them from labels. The FDA examined 85 companies, which were most likely to use “common allergy triggers”, such as cookie makers, candy companies and ice cream manufacturers. In many cases, allergy-provoking ingredients were found on machinery used to make an array of products in a given company and not always cleaned after every use.

Many of these allergens were not deliberately added to a particular product but wound up in them anyway because bakers, for example, routinely used the same utensils and other baking equipment to stir separate mixes. Pan liners, parchment paper and conveyor belts are cleaned quite infrequently – one company even admitted to only cleaning the conveyor belt once every year. One fourth of the companies made products with raw ingredients, such as nuts, but failed to report so on the labels describing the food. In fact, only half the manufacturers actually checked their products to make sure the labels accurately reflected all included ingredients.

Even when allergens are listed, they are sometimes referred to by their scientific names instead of the more commonly known English terms. For example, milk may be listed as “casein,” a term with which most Americans are unfamiliar with thus posing yet another risk for potential consumers.

There are about seven million Americans who suffer from food allergies. Every year some 30,000 people are rushed to hospital emergency rooms for allergic reactions ranging from mild to fatal. As many as 200 of them die. It is the consumer’s responsibility to check labels, especially if they know they have specific food allergies.

Yet, if the labels do not accurately list all the ingredients present in a given product, it can become a serious health hazard to consumers. Current FDA regulations require companies to list everything that goes into their products, but allow trace amounts of “natural” ingredients to be omitted from the labels. Consumer advocates and watchdog groups have pushed for a new rule that would require manufacturers to warn consumers that their product might contain allergens, even if only in the smallest traces.

Manufacturers sometimes take advantage of government regulations to mislead the public into thinking a product is something that it is not. For example, some “fat free” cooking sprays are actually pure fat. This is because government regulations only require a product to list “fat” on their nutrition label if the “per serving” amount is at or above a specified level.

By keeping the serving size very small, a manufacturer need not include fat on its “nutritional facts” label while it is clearly one of the main ingredients. One such “fat free” spray lists canola oil as its main ingredient, yet, because the servicing size is a rather unrealistic “1/3 second spray,” fat content per serving is listed as zero. Not only is it virtually impossible to spray anything from any aerosol can for just 1/3 of a second, but how can such a minute spray coat the surface of any size frying pan, pot or baking tin? So, in the end, the product may be “low” in fat but it cannot possibly be fat free.

Labels can also be misleading when they proclaim a product to be “sugar free,” “cholesterol free,” “lite” or “non fat.” Such products may be quite problematic for consumers with health problems such as diabetes, obesity or high cholesterol.

For example, “sugar free” products are often loaded with fat and calories. They may also contain sugar in different forms, such as fructose, and have high carbohydrate content. “Non fat” or “fat free” foods are sometimes extremely fattening because they are filled with sugar and other carbohydrates. “Lite” is not a formal nutritional term, can mean just about anything, and usually cannot be trusted as accurate.

Herbal Additives

Herb-infused drinks are the fastest growing segment of the beverage business. For the past few years, companies such as PepsiCo, Cadbury Schweppes and Odwalla have been marketing products such as SoBe, Snapple and Fresh Samantha. These drinks contain herbal supplements such as ginkgo biloba, Siberian ginseng and Echinacea.

While these supplements are not necessarily seen as harmful to the consumers, the FDA has warned companies that adding these supplements to their products could be illegal because the “novel ingredients” might not be generally recognized as safe. Ginkgo may exacerbate bleeding or even cause hemorrhaging when taken with certain medications, specifically anti-coagulants. Consumers should always check product labels and be on the lookout for developing information on these herbal beverages.

Carrageenan (Food Additives)

In 2005, it was discovered that the food supplement known as carrageenan caused cancer in laboratory animals. In a report, the FDA has stated that its use in human foods should be reconsidered.

Carrageenan, a seaweed extract, can be found in processed meats and milk products such as ice cream, whipped cream, pudding and yogurt. While there have been no reports of illness in humans, “people need to be informed about the potential risks that are associated with eating carrageenan based on animal studies,” says Dr. Joanne K. Tobacman of the University of Iowa Health Care.

Comfrey Dietary Supplements

Comfrey is an herbal dietary supplement that has been sold as a cure for illnesses such as asthma, tuberculosis and herpes. It has also been sold as a topical medicine for bruises, wounds, muscle aches, sprains and broken bones.

However, the FDA has discovered that comfrey contains toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can potentially cause liver damage and may play a role as a cancer-causing agent. It is dangerous to consumers if taken internally or used on broken skin. There have been no reported deaths but consumers are advised to stop using products containing any of the three types of comfrey – common comfrey, prickley comfrey and Russian comfrey.

Folate and Iron

It has been proven that a daily recommended dosage of folate and iron is an integral part of a balanced diet. But, over time, too much iron and folate on a daily basis can actually become harmful.

According to FDA officials, the risks associated with too much iron intake mostly concern men. A higher iron status in males may be connected to an increased risk for cancer and heart disease. This information has risen out of a study of fortified cereals conducted recently by the FDA. Fortified cereals, popular primarily among adults, may contain a significant amount of iron and folate, sometimes even 120% more than listed on the label.

In addition to these already elevated folate levels, a study showed that most people actually eat more than two times the listed serving, thereby placing them at even higher risk. The recommended amount for daily consumption is 18 mg of iron and 400 micrograms of folic acid. Consumers, especially males, should not exceed the recommended amount.

Baby Formula

In rare instances, powdered infant formulas have been found to cause serious infections in infants. Infant formula is not always a sterile product, and, if stored at room temperature, it may become susceptible to bacteria growth.

For example, Mead Johnson Nutritionals recalled a batch of specialty formulas intended for babies with rare digestive diseases after an infant died of a rare infection when given the formula. The formula, known as Portagen, is used mostly by hospitals. In certain circumstances, however, families were instructed to continue using it at home. In light of this information, hospitals made the switch from powdered formulas to ready-to-feed formulas. Portagen is for infants, toddlers, and, in some cases, even adults with rare digestive diseases that prevent them from absorbing fats.

In addition to this recall, Mead Johnson Nutritionals asked physicians to stop distributing sample packs of its LactoFree and Enfamil infant formulas because the packages failed to list ingredients. Infants allergic to milk protein were placed at risk of serious allergic reactions if they were given the formula.

As with many things, it is what you don’t know about the food you’re eating that can hurt you (or worse). For this reason, we strongly urge our subscribers to read all labels carefully, listen to and read news reports concerning food products, and always proceed on the side of caution when not sure of a food’s content, especially if they have any food related allergies.

The Potential Dangers from Vitamin and Mineral Overload

The intake of the following vitamins and minerals should be monitored in order to avoid potential problems.

Vitamin C

In a recent study it was found that vitamin C pills might in fact help produce toxins that can damage DNA, a step towards forming cancer cells. “The findings do not mean that vitamin C causes cancer,” says Ian A. Blair, lead author of the study. “Vitamin C can do some good things, but it can do some bad things as well. If you really wanted to be cautious you just wouldn’t use the supplementation (vitamin pills).” This discovery may explain why studies conducted to show that vitamin C can protect against cancer have failed.

Vitamin C supplementation does not only include pills. Juices, cereals, and candies are also forms of the nutrient. In its natural form, however, vitamin C can be a healthy addition to your daily diet. The Institute of Medicine recommends that women need 75 milligrams of vitamin C daily and 90 milligrams for men. These levels can be achieved optimally by a balanced diet. In light of this new study, researchers are advising consumers to avoid supplementation whenever possible.

The RDA is 90 mg for men and 75 mg for women, with a limit of 2,000 mg.

In contrast to the experts who express concern as to vitamin C overload, others recommend at least 400 mg of vitamin C each day in order to take advantage of its antioxidant and cold-fighting properties. Toxicity is very rare since the body cannot store vitamin C.

Amounts exceeding 2,000 mg per day, however, are not recommended by the National Academy of Sciences since such dosages can lead to indigestion, diarrhea and GI discomfort. Diabetics, pregnant women, and others who must test their blood sugar levels should also avoid ingesting high doses. (Found in Kiwifruit, parsley and blackcurrant, which all have more vitamin C than oranges.)

Vitamin A (retinol)

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 3,000 International Units (IU) for men and 2,330 IU for women, with a limit of 5,000 IU.

Vitamin A helps maintain healthy teeth, bones, skin, vision and mucous membranes. Too much of it, however, can have the opposite effect by causing reduced bone density and osteoporosis, hair loss and liver problems.

A study at Boston University School of Medicine linked excessive amounts of vitamin A during early pregnancy (over 10,000 IU) to birth defects. Since vitamin A deficiency also causes birth defects, this is one vitamin that should be kept in some degree of balance. (Found in red, yellow and orange fruits and vegetables.)

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

The RDA is 1.3 mg with a limit of 100 mg for this vitamin upon which the human nervous and immune systems depend. If you consume large amounts of meat (protein), more B6 is needed to use that protein. Interestingly, higher amounts of B6 benefit those who consume excessive amounts of alcohol.

Current studies suggest that excessive amounts of B6 may cause damage to the nervous system, specifically to the arms and legs. It is, however, reversible when the dosage drops, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). (Found in baked potatoes, pork loin and roast beef.)

Vitamin B9 (folic acid)

The RDA is 400 mcg, with a limit of 1,000 mcg. (See folate and iron, above.) While folate occurs naturally in food, folic acid is also found in vitamins and fortified foods. Its benefits include making and maintaining healthy blood. Excessive amounts, however, can cause nausea, insomnia and abdominal distension and may also mask signs of B12 deficiency, including anemia.

Vitamin E

The RDA is 15 IU, with a limit of 400 IU. Vitamin E is an antioxidant and has been long-regarded as beneficial to cardiovascular health, as a cancer fighter, and as an answer to hot flashes caused by low estrogen.

Now, however, vitamin E has been challenged as having “no proven clinical benefits,” according to the Annals of Internal Medicine. Moreover, separate studies have linked excessive vitamin E intake to an increased risk of all-cause mortality, congestive heart failure, and increased bleeding.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that over 11% of Americans consume in excess of 400 IU. (Found in vegetable oils such as wheat germ, safflower and corn oil.)

Vitamin D

The RDA is 400 IU, with a limit of 2,000 IU. Although experts claim as little as 10 minutes of UV-B sunlight daily offers the recommended level of vitamin D, many people (especially those with darker skin pigmentation), will benefit from some supplementation. The problem is that this vitamin associated with building strong bones and fighting rickets and osteoporosis, is not found in many foods. Thus, balancing supplements with fortified foods and drinks is one way to reach the RDA.

Unfortunately, unlike water soluble vitamins like vitamin C, that simply pass through the body and are excreted in urine, vitamin D is fat soluble and thus, is not easily removed. Amounts in excess of 2,000 IU per day can lead to too much calcium in the blood or hypercalcemia, which can lead to kidney stones and kidney damage. (Found in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna as well as in fortified milk and energy bars.)

Beta-Carotene

UPDATE [To date there is no RDA and no limit set for daily consumption.] Currently beta-carotene is thought to help boost the immune system and prevent heart disease and a number of cancers, especially leukemia.

Although rare, toxic levels of beta-carotene can lead to increased risk for heart disease and a temporary yellowing of the skin (Carrot Anemia). There is also a body of research that shows people who smoke and take high levels of beta-carotene supplements may be more susceptible to lung cancer. (Found in spinach, carrots, apricots, and cantaloupes.)

Calcium

The RDA is 1,000 mg, with a limit of 2,500 mg.  Calcium is extremely important to our wellbeing with some 90% of the body’s calcium stored in bones and teeth to support and maintain their structure and the rest in the blood, muscles and fluid between cells.

Excessive amounts of calcium can be problematic and impair kidney function and decrease absorption of other minerals in the body. Extremely high intake of calcium or vitamin-D (50,000 IU or higher) over an extended period of time can result in hypercalcemia (elevated levels of calcium in the blood). (Found in milk, yogurt, cheese, and leafy greens.)

Iron

The RDA is 18 mg, with a limit of 45 mg (see folate and iron above). Iron is, unquestionably, an important part of our diet. Yet, like vitamin A, its consumption must be monitored. While proper amounts of iron are essential for cell growth regulation and specialization, excessive amounts can be more dangerous than an iron deficiency.

Studies have shown high iron levels may be a risk factor for heart disease and iron competes with other important minerals, like copper, for absorption in the body. A worst-case-scenario is iron toxicity, a condition that can progressively damage the liver, heart and endocrine glands and ultimately result in premature death if not treated. (Found in beans, dried fruits, eggs and fortified breads.)

Zinc

The RDA is 11 mg for men and 8 mg for women, with a limit of 40 mg. Zinc is important to the maintenance of a healthy immune system and is found throughout the body.

This is another substance (like iron and vitamin A) where balance is critical. Zinc, in proper amounts, supports growth and development, while overdosing can lead to hair loss, ovarian cysts and muscle spasms. Zinc deficiency can cause diarrhea, delayed sexual maturation and impotence, and growth retardation.

While zinc is effective, it must still be approached with caution. There is no clear dosage, and according to WebMD, any daily oral dosage over 40 mg is likely unsafe. 56.2% of test subjects reported loss of taste and nausea. In 2009, FDA warned consumers about zinc nasal sprays after over 100 reports on the loss of smell.

Yet, with all of the added zinc sources on the market, including supplements and zinc lozenges for cold relief, it is relatively easy to reach and even greatly exceed the daily limit. (Found in oysters, beef, pork, and yogurt.)

Conclusion

Unless your diet is extremely poor and deficient in many areas, you should not indiscriminately take vitamins and supplements in the belief that you are making yourself healthier. You might be doing just the opposite. If a doctor prescribes a specific vitamin, mineral, or other supplement to treat an ongoing medical condition, you should follow that advice but that is not a signal to take other vitamins or minerals without first checking with you physician.

You should also remember that foods of all kinds are a source of key nutrients and that you must factor what you eat into your daily equation. Thus, you may find that natural and fortified foods are already giving you most of you RDA for many vitamins and minerals and that little, if any, supplementation is really needed.

Children, Food-Related, General, Men, Toxic Substances, Women

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