Professor researches the role of Vitamin D
By Jeremy Craig
Vitamin D is naturally produced in the body when ultraviolet light from the sun strikes the skin. These days, however, people get outdoors less, and the high SPF sunblock commonly used prevents some of the needed rays for Vitamin D production from being absorbed by the skin.
Associate professor of nutrition Vijay Ganji is researching how Americans can get more of this vital nutrient into their bodies.
"Mother Nature did not create many natural Vitamin D sources because, during the course of evolution, humans didn't need those sources because people would go out into the sun," Ganji says.
Ganji studies vitamin deficiency, as well as a key tool in combating deficiencies — the fortification of foods.
Fortifying foods is not new. Iodine was added to salt in order to prevent goiter earlier in the 20th century, and in 1998, folic acid — which prevents birth defects — was added to flour.
"Historically, fortification has done a lot of good things not only in this country, but also globally," Ganji says. "Many diseases related to vitamins and mineral deficiencies are completely gone from the United States and other countries because of fortification."
Vitamin D regulates calcium in the bloodstream and is, thus, vital to bone health. Ganji also noted that research shows a strong link between Vitamin D and metabolic syndrome — a precursor to type II diabetes.
"We think improving Vitamin D in the U.S. population would cut down on the risk of diabetes," he says.
Ganji says full-scale fortification rules for Vitamin D in America are probably 10 to 15 years away as studies are underway to test the nutrient's stability in food.
The most recent recommendation from the Institute of Medicine of U.S. National Academies of Sciences is that Americans should consume or produce 600 International Units of Vitamin D daily — the amount that could be gained by being in the sun for 15 to 20 minutes.
Alarming deficiencies among the American population are increasing, especially in some groups. For example, more than one-third of African-Americans don't get enough Vitamin D, according to Ganji's recent work that was published in the March issue of Journal of Nutrition.
If people don't go out into the sun, fortification is critical, Ganji says. Unlike other nutrients, such as Vitamin A and the B-vita-mins, there aren't many other food sources for Vitamin D other than fortified dairy and fatty fish.
Nutritionists and health care leaders are caught in a conundrum: clearly, encouraging healthier lifestyles by focusing on better nutrition and physical activity — outside — would be the best way to beat problems with Vitamin D deficiency head on. But the nutrients must be included in the American diet somehow to help prevent disease.
"If people are not getting better with the guidelines we have, and those messages fail, what do we have?" he says. "We have no option but to go for other routes, such as fortification."