Are fortified foods worth the price?
Fortified foods have taken over supermarket shelves, adding confusion—and cost—to our grocery shopping. But are they really good for us?By Emily Huggard
Fortified foods are foods that have had vitamins and minerals (think iron, calcium and vitamin D) added to them or replaced if lost during the refining process. First done to protect against iodine deficiency in Canada in the early part of the 20th century when iodine was added to salt to prevent goiter, several products are now subject to mandatory fortification, including milk with vitamin D and flour with four B vitamins and iron. Milk fortified with vitamin D to help prevent rickets was optional in the 1940s but became mandatory by 1975. Folic acid, a B vitamin, has been added to flour since 1998, which has helped decrease the number of neural tube defects in babies in Canada. (Health Canada has more information on fortification on their website.)
These are all good uses of additional fortification—goiter, for example, is virtually unheard of these days in countries where iodized salt is standard. But in recent years, food manufacturers have been developing products with a whole range of added ingredients, often chosen from the most trendy superfoods of the day, like probiotics and omega-3s. The question is, are these additives good for us? Or are they nothing but marketing?
Why fortify foods?
Under our current food system, dominated by industrial-scale agriculture and ready-made foods, it seems many fortified foods are not necessarily more healthful, but rather necessary. “One of the things that has led to the surge in fortified foods is the continued depletion of nutrients in our soil over the past 50 years,” says Cheryl Nomdarkhon, a registered nutritional consultant practitioner in Toronto.“If the soil's minerals are depleted then the foods that we eat will be empty in nutrients.”
Take, for example, a simple loaf of bread. While wheat grown in good soil is high in a wide range of nutrients, it loses those nutrients through being processed into flour. The more refined the flour, the less nutrients, which is why so many breads have been fortified with added vitamins and minerals—refined white flour has had the grain's original nutrients removed through processing. So why remove them in the first place, aside from fussy palates? White flour and the bread made from it stores better, and will go bad slower. "A longer shelf-life is a sign that the bread is more heavily processed," says Nomdarkhon.
When fortification is good
No matter how much time you spend outdoors, it's nearly impossible for Canadians to get enough vitamin D in the colder half of the year—we're just too far north. And since vitamin D is proving to be essential for our health—research suggests, for instance, that it can protect against cancer—and can be hard to find naturally in foods, fortification may be our best source.
Why fortification can be bad
Although it seems convenient to get your daily iron fix from a bowl of cereal, you may be falling short on your daily nutrients if your overall diet isn't varied enough. “There is a real danger that we are getting lulled into a false sense of security that these foods are helping us achieve our nutritional requirements,” says Cara MacMullin, doctor of naturopathic medicine at Totum Life Science in Toronto. “We may still be left deficient in some nutrients and will have put a dent in our bank account in the process.”
The dangers of too many fortified foods
Individual nutrient and energy requirements need to be taken into account, too. “While fortifying foods with calcium may be helpful for those with a dairy allergy and decrease the incidence of osteoporosis, it may put those who do consume dairy over the tolerable upper intake level,” says MacMullin. In response to this concern, Health Canada is proposing a policy that would set specific limits on levels of fortification.
The bottom line
A balanced diet based on whole, unprocessed foods from a variety of sources is the best option for everyone. But with all the information out there, it could be worth seeking an expert to answer your specific questions. “There is a lot of misleading information,” says MacMullin. “It is best to book an appointment with a naturopathic doctor, dietitian or nutritionist to clear up some of these misconceptions and learn about your specific nutritional requirements.”
Fortified foods that aren't worth the money
• Omega-3-enriched dairy products
“[They're] not worth the added cost,” says MacMullin. Increase your intake of omega-3 fats naturally by eating fatty fish such as salmon, or consider a fish oil supplement. Adding avocado to a salad or snacking on walnuts are also good options, while canola oil and olive oil will supply higher levels of Omega-6 and Omega-9.
• Calcium-fortified orange juice
“Juice is naturally high in sugar and lacks the vitamin D found in milk, which is necessary for calcium absorption,” says MacMullin. Try alternative dietary sources of calcium such as greens, broccoli, oatmeal or almonds.
• Probiotic yogurt
“Probiotics are good for their use in certain intestinal conditions, building immunity, and in preventing antibiotic-induced infections, but this supplementation should be targeted to the individual,” explains MacMullin. A plain low-fat yogurt without added artificial sweeteners is the best choice when choosing a yogurt (you can add flavourings and sweeteners, such as honey, fruit, maple syrup or even jam, at home) and contains sufficient probiotics for most people.
• "Antioxidant" juices
“Fruit is naturally high in antioxidants, flavonoids, fibre and many other vitamins and nutrients," says MacMullin. "Consuming expensive antioxidant-hyped juice will never replace the nutritional benefits of an orange, apple or berries,”—especially as juice should be consumed in moderation due to its high sugar content. As long as you’re drinking 100 percent natural juices, chances are you are getting your money's worth when it comes to antioxidant potency.
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