Are Fortified Foods Beneficial?

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by Dora Hildebrand

You stop by the store one evening to buy a carton of orange juice for breakfast. As you reach for your favorite brand, you are faced with a decision: do you buy the plain juice, or for the same price do you buy the one fortified with calcium and Vitamin D?

We’re faced with decisions like this every day as more and more fortified foods are showing up on the shelves. Foods enriched or fortified with vitamins and minerals are known as “functional” foods. Enriched means the vitamins and minerals are added to replace the originals that were lost during the refining process. On the other hand, when products are fortified it means that they have been modified to incorporate nutrients they wouldn't normally contain for a specific health purpose. A box of pasta with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids — normally found in fish — is a prime example.

Manufacturers have been fortifying milk with Vitamin D since the 1930s, originally to prevent rickets in children. This “sunshine vitamin” also assists in the absorption of the calcium in the milk. If you are lactose intolerant or simply don't like milk, thanks to modern technology, you can drink a glass of orange juice packed with Vitamin D for the same effect.

Iodized salt has been used in the United States since before World War II. Folic acid is added to flour. Niacin has been added to bread in the USA since 1938. Now for those who want a healthy heart but don’t like fish, omega-3 fatty acids are making their way into everything from beverages to sliced meats. Candy and good health are no longer mutually exclusive thanks to a chocolate bar containing omega-3 fatty acids derived from cranberry seed oil. Additional omega-3 fatty acids may not be harmful, yet one might question whether the best approach to healthy eating includes substituting these types of “functional foods” for ones that naturally contain omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, sardines or mackerel.

Many of us choose to supplement our ‘real’ food with nutritional supplements. How does this fit into the functional food picture? According to Sheldon Hendler, M.D., Ph.D, co-author of The Physician's Desk Reference for Nutritional Supplements (in a 2009 Wall Street Journal article at www.wsj.com), there can be advantages to the fortified variant over a multivitamin. Since many of these ingredients are fat-soluble, they're digested better when taken in food. They may also combine favorably with the food's existing components, increasing potency that way.

Thus, it appears there is a place for functional foods in some diets. If your diet relies heavily on packaged foods, choosing the ones that are fortified is probably a good choice. However, these foods aren’t always as impressive as the label may suggest, especially when compared to whole foods. Often the source from which the added nutrients are derived is not obvious to consumers. And how do you know if you are getting an adequate supply of required nutrients from these products?

Isabel De Los Rios, Certified Nutritionist and author of The Diet Solution Program (www.TheDietSolutionProgram.com), claims that, “When you ‘fortify’ any food or drink with a vitamin and/or a mineral, your body is smart enough to know that this is not the real version of this particular nutrient. So much so, that it will choose not to use it. Yes, all of these fortified products are not giving you the vitamins and minerals you need. You must obtain these from natural sources like real fruits and vegetables (i.e. real food).”

The American Heart Association recommends that we eat a wide variety of nutritious foods daily, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, fatty fish like salmon, and fiber-rich whole grains. This way we’ll get all the vitamins and minerals essential to good heart health without the need to eat food that is not only fortified with vitamins and minerals, but also includes high amounts of salt, sugar and fat.

Eating Well, a popular magazine, has a list on its website (www.eatingwell.com) of ten everyday super foods. These foods are multi-taskers, brimming with various disease-fighting nutrients and usually delivered in a delicious form without providing too many calories. Super foods include: berries, eggs, beans, nuts, oranges, sweet potatoes, broccoli, tea, spinach and yogurt. And all the vitamins and minerals in these foods are natural.

First Lady Michelle Obama has been working with food manufacturers to improve the quality of food our children eat. Here are some challenges she gave to the food industry — and tactics that parents should watch out for until things change. Don't hide unhealthy ingredients behind a healthy label. “Adding a little bit of vitamin C to a product with lots of sugar, or a gram of fiber to a product with tons of fat, doesn’t suddenly make those products good for our kids." She suggests that parents read ingredient labels, not just the marketing copy.

Whether or not fortified foods are beneficial becomes a question we each must answer for ourselves as we evaluate our diets to determine if we are getting the necessary nutrients from the best sources. It may even be wise to pay closer attention to food labels to confirm that we are not supplementing our healthy whole foods with products filled with excessive sugar, salt and unhealthy fat. And it is always a good idea to talk with your doctor or nutritionist if you need a healthy eating plan.

Dora Hildebrand, co-founder of Spellbinders Oral Storytellers, Larimer County, is a storyteller, writer, and editor of the book Pioneer Journey, published in 2006. She’s a former legal administrator, now retired, who loves living in Fort Collins. <dmhildebrand@q.com>