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French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety

Nutrivigilance, a scheme devoted to consumer safety

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News of 07/10/2014

The consumption and availability of food supplements as well as of certain special food items such as energy drinks, are in constant progression. Meanwhile, distribution channels are diversifying, especially with regard to the Internet. However, these new products, often perceived by consumers as without danger, can under certain conditions expose them to risks.  Because of this, ANSES has been tasked since 2010 with a nutrivigilance mission whose objective is to identify the adverse effects of consuming these foods. The nutrivigilance scheme contributes to consumer safety. One of its achievements has been the issuing of recommendations on nine different products, including energy drinks, red yeast rice-based food supplements and p-synephrine. Today, after over three years in operation, ANSES provides a preliminary overview of its nutrivigilance scheme, while also reminding physicians of their essential role in its success.


Over the last few decades the range of available foods has greatly expanded, with new products characterised by innovative and novel technology, ingredients and formats, including food supplements and fortified foods and beverages (energy drinks, etc.). The food supplement market in particular has grown exponentially, with turnover of over 1.3 billion euros in 2013. Moreover, products have become increasingly based on technology, while their distribution channels have diversified and consumer habits have evolved. While food safety is highly regulated and monitored, these new products, often perceived as safe by the consumer, can under certain conditions expose them to risks that we need to be able to identify. This is the goal of ANSES's nutrivigilance scheme, which is now an integral part of the monitoring schemes set up by the health authorities to protect the health of consumers. 


Food supplements: primary source of incident reports

In France, according to the INCA 2 survey conducted by ANSES, one out of every five adults and one out of every ten children take food supplements or vitamins and minerals in a medical form at least occasionally. Furthermore, among these consumers, 23% of adults and 12% of children take these products all year round or most of the year.

Since ANSES's nutrivigilance scheme was initiated, it has received over 1500 reports of adverse effects. Among these, 76% were due to consumption of food supplements and 24% to fortified foods or foods for special dietary uses. With regard to food supplements, over one-third of the valid declarations received on food supplements involved weight-loss, hair health or cholesterol-lowering products. In addition, the main adverse effects reported involved the liver, digestive system and allergies.


Incident reports are central to ANSES's work

An analysis of the reports received led the Agency to issue an internal request in order to conduct nine health risk assessments on the risks of consuming certain substances found in food supplements (lutein, zeaxanthin, p-synephrine, red yeast rice, etc.). The Agency has also studied other types of products, and has evaluated in particular the risks linked to so-called "energy drinks" as well as feeding infants under one year of age beverages other than mother's milk or its substitutes.

Moreover, the Agency is currently conducting an assessment of the risks of consuming food supplements made especially for pregnant women or athletes. The results of this assessment are due to be published in the first half of 2015.


Healthcare professionals, key players in the scheme

Today ANSES wishes to stress that, after three years in operation, the nutrivigilance scheme’s effectiveness depends upon the abundance and precision of the data reported. This is why we wish to remind healthcare professionals that their involvement is crucial if the scheme is to remain active and efficient.

We therefore are asking healthcare professionals to continue contributing, and recommend that during medical consultations they ask patients about their use of food supplements and other special dietary foods. We encourage them to remain vigilant, and to declare all the adverse effects they observe, especially with regard to the two requests currently being examined, on food supplements for pregnant women and for athletes. 

Last, ANSES wishes to remind consumers that food supplements are not without danger. They should not be used as a substitute for a well-balanced, varied diet, and the advice of a healthcare professional should always be sought when taking them.  We also recommend strict compliance with the instructions for use on the label. Extreme caution should also be taken with products promoted as "miracle" cures, or those sold through alternative channels, in particular through the Internet.