Staking a claim for vitamin D

by David Phillips
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Vitamin D continues to be a hot topic throughout the food and beverage industry. As the scientific research and nutrition communities continue their efforts to highlight vitamin D’s role in a healthy diet, dairy product manufacturers and marketers are looking to establish their positions in the marketplace.

Darigold, Inc., the cooperative-owned dairy processor based in Seattle, participates in all of the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) campaigns. The company was especially excited about MilkPEP’s Liquid Sunshine promotion, which last year provided tools for conveying messages about the importance of vitamin D in milk.

“We think it was very successful, and we have lobbied MilkPEP to bring it back as part of the regular mix,” said Randy Eronimous, Darigold’s director of marketing. “Continued industry efforts surrounding vitamin D are critical, and we are going to continue our brand-level efforts as well.”

While the Food and Drug Administration recently changed its rules to allow dairy processors and other food manufacturers to make new health claims about vitamin D in combination with calcium, there is a large body of evidence indicating that the recommended daily allowances (R.D.A.s) for vitamin D are inadequate. Because vitamin D accumulates in the body, the F.D.A. caps the amount of fortification for a given product, and the agency is unlikely to adjust that cap anytime soon.

“We can only fortify to about 25% of the R.D.A. per cup of milk,” said Jan Roberts, senior product manager at Darigold. “The recommendation for milk is three or more servings a day, so the most we can provide is about 75% of the R.D.A., but that R.D.A. could be way below what is really needed.”

Some studies show that the R.D.A. of 400 International Units (I.U.s) — or about 10 micrograms — per day should be increased to as much as 1,000 to 2,000 I.U.s per day. That modification in the R.D.A. would make it much easier for the industry to win approval for higher fortification levels per serving. Darigold would like to be able to fortify at higher levels, Ms. Roberts said.

If the R.D.A. is not increased, the dairy industry may still petition for boosting fortification, but that would involve a change in the standards of identity, which would open debate on other changes to the standards. That’s a scenario that neither the F.D.A. nor the dairy industry finds attractive.

Defining the issue

New scientific tools have made it easier for the scientific community to measure vitamin D levels in individuals and to interpret the significance of given levels on various populations. At the same time, most people have made lifestyle changes that have had a serious impact on individual vitamin D levels.

To begin with, there are only a few naturally occurring sources of vitamin D. The simplest source is exposure of the skin to sunlight. The body then naturally produces a highly-available form of vitamin D. The challenge is most people living outside of the tropics would not receive adequate amounts of sunlight exposure even during the summer, and certainly not during the darker winter months.

The only food sources that provide significant amounts of vitamin D are oily fishes and fish oils.

Health problems directly associated with vitamin D deficiency include rickets (a series of bone malformations that include bowlegs) in children and osteomalacia (a softening of the bones by mineralization) in adults. Other possible negative connections include osteoporosis, several autoimmune diseases and heart disease. Vitamin D also may help to prevent certain cancers.

Since the 1930s, vitamin D routinely has been added to whole milk. Because it has been such a widely and regularly consumed beverage, milk provides an ideal delivery vehicle. After fortification began, milk became the top vitamin D source for most people. Milk also contains calcium, and vitamin D aids calcium in promoting bone health.

For more than 30 years it was believed the problem of rickets developing had been solved due to milk fortification with vitamin D. But in the last 10 years new cases have been reported. Early speculation focused on vegetarianism and consumption of unfortified soymilk as the culprits.

The scientific community quickly took a more comprehensive look, and numerous analyses have been performed in the last decade, the body of which has pointed toward a general need for a higher R.D.A. A special committee of the Institute of Medicine has been meeting for more than a year on the subject of vitamin D. The last regularly-scheduled meeting of the advisory group is scheduled for March 25-26, and a report is expected this summer.

Taking two steps forward

While changes in the R.D.A. may or may not be around the corner, the dairy industry has made some progress on vitamin D.

“We’ve had a number of different efforts that have included educating processors about the benefits of vitamin D, and the importance of the availability of the health claim.,” said Cary Frye, vice-president of regulatory affairs for the International Dairy Foods Association (I.D.F.A.). “We wanted to be sure that dairy really owned the story. We didn’t want to let juice usurp it.”

The I.D.F.A. also helped urge changes to F.D.A. regulations regarding label claims related to calcium fortification, Ms. Frye said. It is now easier for dairy processors to make claims regarding the bone health benefits derived from vitamin D and calcium in concert.

The I.D.F.A. and MilkPEP have driven messages to consumers via web sites like, which was part of the Liquid Sunshine campaign. These groups also have encouraged dairy processors to fortify a wider range of products with vitamin D. The F.D.A. only allows fortification of certain products, but those include all milk types, yogurt and sour cream. Until recently, most processors were not fortifying those types of products. Dairy processors have responded, and a number of new products with the vitamin D and calcium combination have found shelf space in the past few years.

Among the new products are the premium Yo-Plus yogurts from Yoplait, a division of General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis. In January, Yoplait rolled out a new formula for the line that delivers a trio of specific benefits: 20% of the Daily Value of antioxidant vitamins A and E, a blend of probiotic cultures and fiber for digestive health, as well as calcium and vitamin D for bone health. Yoplait also adds the vitamin to its Fiber One products.

Darigold now adds vitamin D to its full fluid milk line, yogurts, sour cream and cottage cheese.

Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., successfully petitioned the F.D.A. in 2005 to broaden the standards of identity for processed cheese to allow additional vitamin D fortification. Kraft now has an “excellent source” claim on many products. There also are nearly 100 s.k.u.s (stock-keeping units) from more than 15 yogurt processors that are fortified with vitamin D. These include products from Dannon, Stonyfield Farm and Breyer’s. Vitamin D is now routinely added to soymilk as well.

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