With an increasing number of food options coming from packaged and processed sources, getting nutritional deficiencies is inevitable. But when the food industry promises to restore all the essential nutrients in their products, that sounds like good news right? Or is it too good to be true? Consulting Dietitian and Nutritionist and the founder of Diet Heal, Hanisi Savla helps us decode the truth around fortified foods.
What is food fortification?
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Health Organisation (WHO) defined food fortification in 1994 as the addition of one or more useful nutrients to food for the purpose of preventing or correcting a deficiency of one or more nutrients in the population. In other words, vital nutrients like iron, calcium, vitamin A, D and folic acid are added to staple foods such as rice, flour or milk to improve their nutritional value.
Why are foods fortified?
Historically, foods were fortified with the sole reason of targeting nutritional deficiencies in the public. It was done to provide nutrient rich foods to the remotest regions in the country, which may not have access to a variety of foods. Severe deficiencies of vital micronutrients caused disease and death of children and also had several irreversible manifestations. Thus, micronutrient malnutrition became a serious health risk, which was resolved to a great extent by food fortification. Since the cost of transporting perishable foods is reduced, fortifying also turned out to be a cost-effective method.
Are Fortified Foods different from Enriched Foods?
Both fortified and enriched foods came into existence around the same time, between 1930-1940. They came with the purpose of eradicating deficiencies among children and adults by boosting their foods with essential micronutrients. While fortified foods contain nutrients that are not originally present in foods, enriched foods are those in which the nutrients lost during processing are restored before packaging. “Both enriched and fortified foods provide extra nutrition in the daily diet but may also be highly processed and preserved and hence cannot always be classified as healthy,” says Savla
The Yay and Nay of Fortification
“Fortification has led to an array of options for every type of consumer in the market. Along with providing extra nourishment, it also covers up the daily dietary requirement of fussy eaters,” explains Savla, who is also a pediatric nutrition expert. “It has prevented nutritional deficiencies to a great extent in the overall population and especially in the economically weaker sections. On the other hand, most fortified foods are highly processed and preserved, and hence their daily consumption can cause inflammatory activity in the body, leading to lifestyle and hormonal imbalance in children and young women. Moreover, the artificially added nutrients do not get absorbed as efficiently as the nutrients naturally occurring in foods. Hence, if given a choice, always opt for fresh and seasonal options, she suggests.
When it comes to choosing fortified foods, Savla recommends looking for the age group that the product is made for by carefully reading the food labels. "Understand the amount of preservatives added in the food and the amount of nutrient that is fortified and then decide it's worth” she adds.
Commonly Fortified Foods
Here’s a list of foods that are most commonly fortified
Milk is most commonly fortified with Vitamin D, because it requires calcium to get absorbed. It is essential for bone health. According to a report in The Economic Times dated 31st August 2019, 70-80% of Indians in the country are Vitamin D deficient. Hence, it does good to consume milk fortified with Vitamin D, says Savla.
Severe cases of goiter caused by iodine deficiency led to the fortification of salt with trace mineral iodine. It was done with an intention to ensure that it is consumed by every individual and hence added to an ingredient that is used countrywide. Thanks to awareness campaigns around the country, iodized salt is now consumed even in the remotest of areas.
Juices are commonly fortified with calcium and iron. With an increased consumption of processed packaged foods, many people are at a risk of developing micronutrient deficiencies. The food industry took advantage of this and fortified these packaged foods with synthetic nutrients. But should these sugar-rich, artificially flavoured drinks be our source of nutrients? Savla strongly disapproves.
Cereals are generally fortified with B vitamins and iron. A deficiency of the B vitamins and iron cause fatigue and tiredness. Consuming fortified cereals can improve the intake of these nutrients and decrease the instances of deficiency.
Oils fortified with Vitamin A, E and K
Vitamin A deficiency can cause serious problems with eye health and hamper your immunity. Vitamin A, E and K are also the three major nutrients guarding the cells from harmful free radicals. Oils fortified with these vitamins are an essential source for people who do not consume dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains and yellow orange fruits on a regular basis.
Rice with Folic acid, B12 and iron
According to the latest government guidelines, it will be mandatory to use fortified rice in all the programmes run by the Integrated Child Development Services in India by December 2019. Apart from folic acid, B12 and iron, rice will also be fortified with niacin, pyridoxine and vitamin A.
According to Savla, a daily intake fortified salt, milk, oils and rice is essential.
Along with this, the ACSM certified nutritionist also recommends a few fortified options for special groups.
Infants must be exclusively breastfed for 6 months—as mother’s milk provides the baby with all essential nutrients. However, in cases where the mother is unable to produce enough milk for the infant, fortified infant formulas can be considered.
Children and teenagers
An age group that tends to eat a lot of processed food, they can consume fortified options of cereals, milk, pasta, bread, nutritional bars, eggs and unflavored yogurt.
Women often have more nutritional deficiencies than men. Foods that provide fortification for iodine, B12, iron folic acid and vitamin K are necessary, hence, consuming fortified salt, oil and rice is a good idea.
Menopause can lead to severe deficiencies in women. So, a regular supply of nutritionally fortified eggs, salt, whole grains and milk are recommended.
Fortified refined grains, nutritional supplements, salt and milk should be consumed by this age group.