Is it worth eating fortified foods?
Fortifying food with nutrients and vitamins has been happening for a long time – but a recent change to UK food labelling regulations means you can now tell if your food’s been fortified.
When butter was unavailable after the first world war, the government called for vitamins A and D to be added to margarine. Since then white flour has been bolstered with calcium, iron, thiamine and niacin; eggs have been enriched with omega 3s; and breakfast cereals, milk and fruit juice are commonly packed with extra goodness.
In the developing world, fortified foods are essential – vitamin A-fortified rice has helped fight night blindness in Africa and Asia. Since 1998 in the US, and 2009 in Australia, flour’s been fortifed with folic acid, believed to reduce neural tube defects in foetuses (debate continues over whether the UK should follow suit).
Of course, you can have too much of a good thing. In the US, vitamin D is added to regular milk, and there are cases of bodybuilders consuming too much, which can affect calcium levels leading to weak bones and kidney problems. Quality of absorption from fortified food isn’t always guaranteed either. Unlike the heme iron in grass-fed meat, mineral iron in fortified cereal is hard to absorb unless you consume it with vitamin C.
Well-publicised food deficiencies can be exploited by manufacturers, leading to unhealthy processed foods claiming an unearned healthy status when fortified. The British Nutrition Foundation estimates, for example, that breakfast cereals contribute 20-30% of people’s average iron intake – but this is probably because healthier sources are being overlooked.
Like fish oil tablets and protein shakes, fortified foods should supplement a healthy diet. A chocolate bar may be enriched with polyphenols, a phytonutrient linked with better blood flow and performance, but the extra 500 calories from 100g of chocolate won’t be good for you.
Processed foods are already a bag of chemicals so don’t avoid fortified ones simply because they add more to the mix. They can help you meet your micronutrient requirements – just don’t rely on them as your sole source of essential nutrients. A varied selection of wholefood ingredients is the bedrock of a healthy diet. Bonus vitamins should simply be the fortified cherry on top.