K — the latest addition to the vitamin alphabet soup

Long known as nearly the only real nutrient in iceberg lettuce, vitamin K has finally come of age in the vitamin world.

Its fortunes have changed due to research showing vitamin K2, produced by fermenting soy and popular in Japan as natto, to be a calcium-binding nutrient. This makes it useful in supporting bone health, as well as preventing calcified, or hardened, arteries.

"It is fair to say K2 was one of the 'buzz' items at the SupplyExpo show in Anaheim in March," said Eric Anderson, brands manager at PL Thomas, which markets MenaQ-7 brand vitamin K2. "Food companies are taking substantial notice. In Europe, several massive brands of yoghurt and milk are incorporating natural menaquinone-7, and we are working on GRAS now in the US."

2006 marked the launch of a number of vitamin K2 supplements on the US market. PL Thomas and Blue California each launched a K2 supplement within a week of each other. So-called letter-vitamin sales continued their steep drop in 2005 (February 2005-06 data), according to Information Resources, posting a 13.16 per cent sales decrease. Vitamin K was part of that decline, falling more than 22 per cent. Vitamin C leads all letter vitamins in dollar sales, at $123 million — with vitamin K registering less than $15,000 in annual dollar sales up until Feb 2006.

New health benefits for old nutrients are a sure-fire way to boost sales interest. New research also helps, and a study published in the 1 April issue of Blood confirmed that high intake of vitamin K reduced arterial calcification by 37 per cent in animals.

Many large manufacturers will take a year or more to pass a new ingredient through the gauntlet of research, formulation and marketing. Because it's been just about a year since the new vitamin K2 launches, consumers can expect to see more on K2 soon.

Perhaps the final hurdle to mainstream acceptance is a validated method of assessing the nutrient — some suppliers are trying to create competitive advantages by alleging differences between various K2 forms — MK7 vs MK4 specifically.

"Validating is a big challenge," said Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president of Blue California. "There is not yet a properly validated standard for MK-7 in the US. We don't specify whether it's MK-4 or MK-7. Natural vitamin K2 is how we market it. The constant bickering and lack of information creates an environment of distrust. There's more work to be done. So far, though, we know it's going to grow."

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