Becky Huting, MJLST Articles Editor
While recently home in Chicago on spring break, I offered to make my dad a spinach-packed smoothie. My dad (a good sport) agreed, but asked me to make it light on the spinach as he understood men at his age (60) should be taking it easy on the iron intake. I had heard this principle before, and knew that men’s and women’s vitamin supplements were different in part due to the additional iron needs of women. My dad was right about one thing: he needs a lot less iron than me. His recommended dietary allowance for iron is 8 mg/day whereas mine is a lofty 18 mg/day. In actuality, men rarely suffer from iron deficiency so supplements are usually unnecessary, and in fact too much iron can indeed be harmful. There are possible links with excessive iron consumption to diabetes as well as neurodegenerative disease.
But where his concerns are unfounded are in the nutritional numbers. One cup of uncooked spinach contains only .8 mg of iron. That is only one-tenth of his daily iron needs. Three ounces of ground beef containing 15% fat contains 2.2 mg of iron. What about his daily serving of canned, drained clams, you ask? Fine, you have me there: if my father actually consumed such item, he’d have gone over at 23.8 mg of iron. It is very hard though for a human to overdose on iron from food, because an adult body has systems in place to regulate the amount of iron it absorbs. In short, my dad need not be concerned about spinach in his smoothie, except for reasons of palatability.
So given the different nutritional needs of men, women, and also children, what entity is telling consumers whether a vitamin is for them by way of labels? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) relinquished that duty back in October of 1994, when the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was passed. This law created a new regulatory framework for the safety and labeling of dietary supplement that places the responsibility on the product manufacturers rather than the FDA. The DSHEA was a response to lobbying by health food companies to vote down several bills that would have had the effect of increasing the FDA’s powers over supplement labeling. Celebrities even got involved. In one commercial, Mel Gibson portrayed a citizen being raided and arrested by FDA agents for possessing a bottle of Vitamin C.
This mentality that too much government oversight is a bad thing is a popular ideal. After all, it’s only a vitamin. Perhaps a label signifying use by pregnant and nursing moms is enough, but consider the 60-year-old guy grabbing this supplement in haste. He is now getting 27 mg iron per day from the vitamin alone, perfect for a pregnant woman, but over 3X his nutritional needs. Are a few words on a label enough to signify safety to a consumer? Certainly there is an argument that too much information will lead to a cluttered, confused label. So where do you come down, bring the FDA back in or leave it to the companies? And do you feel like a green smoothie? I promise you the banana masks the spinach flavor.