Fortified and Enriched Foods – Better for You?

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When grocery shopping, have you noticed some foods claiming to be fortified with vitamins and minerals, and others claiming to be enriched? Is there a difference between the two?

Turns out, that while both mean nutrients have been added to the product, the terms are distinct.

What you need to know:

Enrichment – adding back nutrients that were lost or diminished during food processing. B vitamins are lost when wheat is refined are added back to white flour. That’s why many breads are “enriched with vitamins.”

Fortification -  adding nutrients to a food that weren’t originally present. For example, milk is fortified with vitamin D, which improves the body’s absorption calcium and phosphorus present in milk.

The first modern fortification took place in the 1830′s when French chemist Jean Boussingault added iodine to salt, resulting in a reduction of goiter (a thyroid condition where the neck swells to melon proportions).

In the 1930′s and 40′s in the US, enrichment and fortification were established as a means  to correct or prevent nutritional deficiencies in populations.   Iodine was added to salt, vitamin D to milk, and vitamins B1, B2, niacin, and iron to flours and bread.

Breakfast cereal manufacturers quickly caught on, and today almost all cereals are fortified with extra vitamins and minerals. Some parents will chuckle and say that they’re mostly fortified with sugar…

In the past 2 decades, health concerns have become an important factor in consumers’ food choices, a fact not unnoticed by manufacturers. It seems that almost any processed food can be engineered to carry any nutrient, especially those with a buzz (think omega-3, fiber…)

While some of these integrations are feats of food engineering ingenuity (it’s really hard to maintain the same taste, texture, and mouth feel of a food when adding vitamins and minerals that are usually bitter), they’re not necessarily going to improve your health. This is due to several factors:

The first is bioavailability, meaning how much of the nutrient is actually utilized by our body. When a nutrient is present naturally in a food, the bioavailability is usually high. The more processed a food, the lower the chances that artificially added nutrients will reach the bloodstream.

Second reason is that, for some nutrients, most Americans already get more than 100% of their daily requirement. Going above is not necessarily better for one’s health.

Another reason is that in order to maintain a pleasant taste, other ingredients are added to the product. Take, for example, vitamin water. The vitamins by themselves would render the water so bitter (think of aspirin) that you’d spit it out. Manufacturers mix in a generous amount of sugar to mask the unpleasantness, but it’s no health drink anymore.

What to do at the supermarket:

There are several fortifications that are generally recognized as sound (iodine in salt, enriched flour, vitamin D in milk). Other than these though, try to get your vitamins and minerals naturally from the source – as many unprocessed foods as possible. That means fruits and vegetables, whole wheat products, beans, meat, and poultry. And when you do see vitamins added to a soft drink, don’t be tempted.

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