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Scientists contemplate most important nutrients

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We often hear the comment, “Can’t nutritionists make up their minds? They keep changing things!”

Now an international group of European nutrition scientists has attempted to deal with this frustration that they share with the rest of us. Acknowledging some significant differences in nutrient recommendations across Europe, the scientists set out a plan to help get everyone on the same page for recommended intakes of vitamin and minerals.

This coalition of scientists is called the European Micronutrient Recommendations Aligned (EURRECA) Network of Excellence. To determine which nutrients deserve the most attention, they considered three things: the amount of new scientific evidence, the importance of the nutrient to current public health problems, and the extent that recommendations differed across countries.

Question: What nutrients were considered to require the most concern?

Answer: Vitamin D iron, and zinc were ranked as the highest-priority nutrients across all age groups. For children, adolescents and adults, folate (folic acid) was added, and for seniors, folate and vitamin B-12 were added.

Q: What health problems are associated with these nutrients?

A: Vitamin D continues to be considered important for maintaining good bone health, but newer evidence indicates it might play a role in many other health problems such as cancer, high blood pressure, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, and diabetes.

Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide. Severe deficiencies cause anemia, which reduces the ability of blood cells to transport oxygen. This results in fatigue and a reduced capacity for physical activity. However, long-term marginal iron nutrition might contribute to impaired mental, physical, and immune development in infants. Low iron status also is being studied as a contributing factor in some types of depression, autism, restless legs syndrome and a host of other health problems.

Zinc is especially important for normal fetal development during pregnancy and for normal growth in infants, children and adolescents. Deficiencies also are known to impair normal immune responses.

Folate is critical during pregnancy to support normal neural development and the prevention of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. It also is being investigated as a possible factor in childhood leukemia, cardiovascular disease and dementia.

Vitamin B-12 is mostly of concern in the older population or in those who consume no animal products. Many older people develop a reduced capacity to absorb B-12 from food. Over time a B-12 deficiency damages the nervous system and can lead to a variety of problems involving memory and dementia. Strict vegetarians (vegans) need to include B-12 supplements or fortified foods in their diet to avoid the serious consequences of B-12 deficiency.

The EURRECA coalition considered several other nutrients to be of major concern to public health. These varied across age groups but included calcium, magnesium, fluoride, potassium and vitamins A, B-1, C and K. The majority of these nutrient problems can be avoided by consuming an adequate amount of a variety from all the major food groups.


Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S., and Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S., are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii-Manoa. Dobbs also works with University Health Services.

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