Vitamin D deficiency is extraordinarily high in the United Kingdom. Some time back, I was shocked to find that some 75% of the general population was vitamin D deficient, and that this number progressed to nearly 100% in some subgroups, such as the elderly, or those who had suffered hip fractures. Of course, regular readers of this column will know that the diet is a poor source of vitamin D, and in a place as overcast as the British Isles, we should expect that vitamin D deficiency would be common. Nonetheless, 75% prevalence is appalling, and something should be done about it. Low vitamin D predisposes people to bone fractures, increases their likelihood of falls (especially in the elderly), and has been associated with a number of chronic health conditions.
Fortunately, something is being done about this, at least in the UK. The National Institute on Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued a statement calling for millions of Brits to be given access to free vitamin D supplements. While the perfectionist in me notes that this doesn't really solve the problem per se (that would only be solved by the British moving closer to the equator and adopting outdoor lifestyles), the pragmatist sees good policy in here.
Of course, we've seen attempts to introduce nutrients into the food supply before but in these cases, the nutrient introduced is being reintroduced after having been stripped out by processing. 'Fortified' bread is a classic example; B vitamins are naturally present in reasonable amounts in whole wheat, and bread made from unprocessed whole wheat is rich in B vitamins. However, when wheat is processed in order to make white bread, the B vitamins are lost, and so when the bread is 'fortified' by adding B vitamins, it's not so much an attempt to 'supercharge' the bread, as much as restore the bread it its original nutrition level.
In the case of vitamin D supplements, however, I believe this to be a genuinely good idea. As I've noted a few times in the past, vitamin D is extremely hard to get from the diet, and it's very difficult to get enough from sun exposure, especially in a place as far from the equator as the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, it's essential to normal human health, and so supplementation is often the best and only solution. That the NICE has recommended that supplements be made available to millions of British is encouraging; I do hope, however, that they make the bioactive D3 form available, rather than the less active D2. Given that vitamin D deficiency is also prevalent in the US, I hope the NICE's efforts are successful, and that a similar policy can be implemented here.