Are Fortified Foods Actually Healthy?
By Jeanette Kimszal, RD, NLC
And these pumped-up products are crazy common: think cereals and breakfast bars, milk and milk products, orange juice, tea, and infant formulas.
At first glance, they seem incredibly helpful. If you tend to be calcium-deficient, why not get an extra dose while sipping your morning OJ, right? Of course, it’s not that simple (sigh…).
Here are the facts you need to decide whether fortified foods are right for you and your family.
Fortified Foods vs. Enriched Foods
First, a distinction: fortification and enrichment are both processes that add nutrients to food, but they’re slightly different.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), fortification is when a nutrient is added to a food that never contained that nutrient. Adding vitamin D to orange juice or milk is a good example.
Enrichment, on the other hand, is when nutrients that are lost during processing are added back into a food. For instance, when whole wheat is processed into white flour, iron and B vitamins may be added back in a synthetic form.
Fortified Foods’ Potential Benefits
Government agencies and food policy advocates often use enrichment and fortification to decrease nutrient deficiencies in large populations, and this approach can be super effective.
In the 1920s, companies began adding iodine to table salt to combat a high incidence of goiters in the US, and in 1996 the FDA mandated adding synthetic folic acid to processed grains in order to combat high incidences of neural tube defects in newborn babies. These policies have helped prevent real public health problems.
The Problems with Fortified Foods
There are a few big issues with the average consumer eating fortified foods regularly.
Many experts argue that your body does not absorb individual nutrients added to foods in the same way that it absorbs nutrients that naturally occur in whole foods, consumed alongside all kinds of other complementary nutrients. A simple example is skim milk that is fortified with vitamin A and D. The milk has been processed to remove the fat, but A and D are fat-soluble vitamins. So if you eat them without a fat source, you may not benefit in the same way or to the same degree.
And most food companies are using synthetic versions of the micronutrients, which your body may process differently than the natural, food-based versions.
Finally, companies often add vitamins into these foods at incredibly high levels—up to 100 percent of the recommended daily amount into one serving of food. Since most people (probably like you!) don’t have severe deficiencies, eating a lot of foods that are enriched or fortified may cause you to exceed the recommended daily intake by a long shot. In severe (rare) cases, this can lead to toxicity overload, or it may mess with things like your digestion. Some individuals have troubling breaking down folic acid, for example, and eating enriched bread, pasta, and cereal regularly could cause blood concentrations to increase to a level that can decrease immunity or mask a vitamin B12 deficiency.
Here’s the bottom line: you may have noticed something about the fortified foods mentioned here—they’re usually highly processed (AKA unhealthy!) to begin with.
So, while fortification can be a useful tool for delivering nutrients to at-risk populations, if you’re lucky enough to have the choice, it’s better to skip labels that say enriched or fortified and reach for naturally nutrient-rich whole foods.
About Jeanette: Jeanette Kimszal is a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and graduate of The Nutrition School. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Media Studies from Rutgers University and worked on the media side of advertising. During that time, she became health-conscious and decided to turn her nutrition hobby into a new career. She was accepted to Montclair State University and two years later obtained a certification in Nutrition, and then completed her dietetic internship with the ARAMARK Distance Learning Internship. She has experience working in clinical, community, and management settings and has counseled both in- and out-patients. She currently resides in New Jersey, and her passions include nutrition, health, wellness, writing, and music. She has a love for helping women attain healthy lifestyles through positive behavioral changes and teaching people how to add more nutrients into their diet through consumption of whole foods.