Eat Empowered Wellness Advice from Experts

Are Enriched and Fortified Foods Healthy? The Pros and Cons

By Jeanette Kimszal

Have you picked up iodized salt or vitamin D-rich milk recently? Both are examples of fortified foods—meaning, foods to which extra nutrients have been added.

Pumped-up products are crazy common: Besides milk and salt, commonly fortified foods include cereals, breakfast bars, 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 know 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 gets 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 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 functional foods

Fortified functional foods take this concept even further. They contain an added ingredient intended to produce a specific health benefit beyond its nutritional value, such as cholesterol reduction or cancer prevention. Some types of fortified functional foods contain supplements, such as the addition of:

  • Omega-3s in milk to boost brain function
  • Collagen in protein bars to enhance skin health
  • Probiotics for better gut or immune function

Other types include antioxidants, like the addition of fruits or vegetables in cereals or beverages.

The Benefits of Fortified Foods: 3 Success Stories

Government agencies and food policy advocates often use one process or another to decrease nutrient deficiencies in large populations, an approach that can be super effective.

In the 1920s, U.S. companies began adding iodine to table salt. This essential element supports the thyroid gland. Without enough iodine, humans experience a high incidence of goiters (the term for an enlarged thyroid).

In the 1930s, commercial milk producers began fortifying milk with synthesized vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” to save children from rickets. In 1900, about 80% of children living in Boston suffered from rickets, a bone affliction that leads to deformities, but it was essentially eradicated thanks to fortified vitamin D.

Much more recently in 1996, the FDA mandated adding synthetic folic acid to processed grains. The goal: to combat high incidences of neural-tube defects in newborns.

All three of these policies helped prevent real public health problems.

The Problems with Fortified Foods

However, the average consumer who regularly eats fortified foods faces a few big issues.
Many experts argue that your body does not absorb individual nutrients added to foods in the same way that it absorbs naturally occurring nutrients in whole foods, consumed alongside other complementary nutrients. A simple example: Skim milk is often fortified with vitamin A and D, which are fat-soluble vitamins—but the milk was processed to remove the fat. When you consume those vitamins without a fat source, you may not get the same degree of nutritional benefits.

RELATED: ​​Food Combining: The Facts and 5 Combos That Make Sense for Your Health and Life

Not to mention, most food companies use synthetic versions of micronutrients, which your body may process differently than the natural, food-based versions.

The Problems with Enriched Foods

Companies often add vitamins into food at incredibly high levels—up to 100% of the recommended daily amount into one serving of food. Since most of us don’t have severe deficiencies, eating a lot of enriched foods might cause you to exceed the recommended daily intake by a long shot.

This can mess with your digestion, for starters. Some individuals have trouble breaking down folic acid (which is necessary for the important process of methylation), for example, so eating enriched bread, pasta and cereal regularly could lead to decreased immunity or mask a vitamin B12 deficiency. In severe but thankfully rare cases, overconsumption of micronutrients can lead to toxicity overload.

RELATED: What is Methylation and Why Does It Matter For Your Health?

The Takeaway

Here’s the bottom line: You may have noticed something about most of the enriched or fortified foods mentioned here—they’re usually highly processed to begin with. It’s much better to avoid those kinds of foods altogether.

Fortification can be a useful tool for delivering nutrients to at-risk populations. But if you’re lucky enough to have the choice, it’s better to skip labels that say enriched or fortified. Instead, reach for naturally nutrient-rich whole foods.

(Image: Shutterstock)



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