June 16, 2009


Fortified Foods: How Healthy Are They?: Food companies are getting more creative with the products they're enhancing -- collagen-infused marshmallow, anyone? But can they really deliver on the health benefits they claim? (SARA REISTAD-LONG, 6/15/09, WSJ)

Fortified foods are nothing new. Iodine was first added to salt in Michigan in 1924 in order to help reduce the prevalence of goiter, which had reached an alarming rate of 47% in that state. The measure worked so well that it led to the voluntary iodization of the product for the entire country. It also paved the way for a cascade of similar, mandatory approaches. Brain-and-skin degenerating pellagra was almost completely eradicated within about a decade after breads and grains were enriched with niacin, thiamin, riboflavin and iron in 1943.

In 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made it mandatory to add folic acid to enriched grains such as breads and cereals with the goal of reducing neural-tube defects in babies. Between then and 2004, the number of infants born with neural-tube defects went down by 25%, according a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-sponsored study, which concluded that folic acid fortification was at least partially responsible for the drop.

"Nutritionally enhanced foods are essentially just a different way of getting some of the benefits of a vitamin supplement. Studies show both do the job," says Sheldon Hendler, M.D., Ph.D, co-author of "The Physician's Desk Reference for Nutritional Supplements."

Dr. Hendler says in some cases there can even be advantages to the fortified variant over a multivitamin: "Many of these ingredients are fat-soluble, so they're digested better when taken in food. They may also combine favorably with the food's existing components, increasing potency that way." Indeed, vitamin A's fat-solubility is precisely the reason many margarine brands now include the ingredient. The vitamin D that's routinely added to milk is often touted for aiding calcium absorption.

But enhanced foods aren't always as impressive as the label may suggest --especially when compared to whole foods. "Processing destroys nutrients, and the more processing there is, the more destruction you get," says Marion Nestle, author and professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "Fortification adds back some nutrients, so overall you're better off with a processed fortified food than a processed unfortified one. But a whole food is always going to be superior."

For instance, while numerous brands of protein-fortified pastas can contain nearly as much protein as a serving of meat, the meat is usually the healthier choice because the pastas are made from processed grains and are thus high in simple carbohydrates. Another example: Since probiotics occur naturally in yogurts, consumers might be tempted to think that yogurts touting extra probiotics may escalate health benefits. But processing actually breaks down existing probiotic strains, and many of the lab-developed variants have little research to support their health claims.

Then one has to be mindful of serving size and strength. Hearts and Minds Peanut Butter with Omega-3 and Olive Oil has 100 mg of the fatty acid per two-tablespoon serving, but a 3.5 oz. portion of salmon, tuna or sardines has 1,500 mg of omega-3. One would have to eat 30 tablespoons of the peanut butter -- and 180 grams of fat -- to get the same amount of omega-3 present in a single serving of fish.

Better the whole jar than a forkful of seafood.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 16, 2009 6:27 AM
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