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10 July 2012

Take your medicine – or is it just food?

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A new database of information on food ingredients will help clarify the fuzzy boundary between food supplements and herbal medicines across Europe

EU legislation distinguishes between plant food supplements and traditional herbal medicinal products, but this categorisation can vary between countries. This can lead to consumer confusion and regulatory inconsistency across Europe. But the PlantLIBRA EU funded project is now defining a consistent set of references for bioactive ingredients for all countries.

“People need to know about the beneficial and adverse effects of bioactive compounds in supplements,” Paul Finglas, a researcher at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, UK, tells Finglas is also the director of the not-for-profit association EuroFIR AISBL, provider of scientific information on food composition and a major partner in PlantLIBRA. This is particularly important for imported plant food supplements that must be effectively regulated for consumer safety. Inconsistent classification of bioactive substances and data gaps in national information makes regulation difficult.

EuroFIR already offers its members food composition information used as a basis for food regulations in each European country. The PlantLIBRA project will do the same for bioactive compounds so that EU Member States have a reference when regulating dietary supplements. For example, it will include information about highly carcinogenic plant compounds or those used in dieting supplements.

PlantLIBRA pools existing knowledge and standardises information from different sources. “At the Member State level there sometimes isn’t enough clear information to legislate bioactive compounds, the database adds to the knowledge available enabling more evidence-based policies,” says Finglas. Countries will thus no longer need to rely on their own, often incomplete information.

The potential benefits of a single, EU-wide database have been recognised by the food industry. “In our Vitakid  [mobile nutrition information] project we found that the food composition databases of some European countries were incomplete,” Sabri Abarkan, managing director of healthy eating promotion company Vivsan, Witten, Germany, tells, “ EuroFIR helped us circumvent missing national data by filling the gaps with data from other European countries.” PlantLIBRA will do the same for plant food supplements and herbal medicines.

“PlantLIBRA is taking an appropriately broad strategy in analysing all relevant aspects of the problem, such as risk-benefit, intake, supplement composition, and contamination,” comments Cian O’ Mahony, an applied mathematician with Crème Software, in Dublin, who is also the project manager of the EU funded FACET project that is analysing consumer exposure to flavours, additives and food contact materials across Europe, “These elements should collectively improve safety standards of imported herbal supplements in the EU.”

The need for the information to be up-to-date is very important for the success of such initiatives, however. “It is critical the databases are continually updated to stay current with the latest scientific research and data, so a sustainability plan for the project is also essential,” O’Mahony warns. This was echoed by Vivsan’s Abarkan: “continuous research collaborations and new projects in this important area enable funding to be invested in content updates. This way, experts can continuously review existing data and input new relevant information into the database.” provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.