Before the advent of food fortification, your chances of suffering from rickets, goiters, pellagra or some other nutritional deficiency disorder was much higher. Today, some of the most popular food products in the United States are fortified with the vitamins and minerals that many Americans don’t get enough of, including iron, vitamin D and folic acid.
Pretty much all of the cow’s milk produced in the United States is fortified with vitamin D. Known as the “sunshine vitamin” because your body can make it from sunlight, vitamin D helps you absorb and use calcium. Even if you get enough calcium in your diet, not getting enough vitamin D can increase your risk of bone loss, or osteoporosis, as well as bone softening, or osteomalacia. Milk is fortified with vitamin D because it’s one of the top sources of calcium in the American diet. Vitamin D is also sometimes added to yogurt.
Soy, almond, rice, oat, hemp and other dairy-free milk drinks are usually fortified with calcium and vitamin D, which helps make them a reasonable alternative to cow’s milk. Many of these beverages are also fortified with vitamin A, a fat-soluble nutrient that boosts immunity and allows you to see in the dark. While vitamin A is commonly added to reduced-fat and fat-free dairy milk, it’s a natural part of whole milk. Plant-based milks may also be fortified with protein, vitamin E, riboflavin and vitamin B-12.
Ready-to-eat cereal is another frequently fortified food. At a minimum, a bowl of fortified cereal will help you boost your intake of folic acid, iron and vitamin B-12. Heavily fortified varieties may also deliver calcium, zinc, vitamin C, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin B-6. Folic acid is the man-made form of folate, a B vitamin found in foods like spinach, peanuts and lentils. Cereal is fortified with folic acid to help prevent birth defects – babies born to women who don’t consume enough of the nutrient during pregnancy are more likely to have spine-related birth defects.
Cereal, pasta, bread, cookies and other wheat-based products are made from refined flour, whole-grain flour or a combination of the two. Since refined wheat has been stripped of its nutrient-dense, fiber-rich grain, refined flour provides little more than calories – unless it’s enriched. Enrichment – or replacing the vitamins and minerals lost during processing – involves adding iron and B vitamins back into refined flour. Enriched flour usually contains higher levels of these nutrients than the whole grain, and is almost always fortified with folic acid, to boot.
Fortified foods can help you get the vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy, but shouldn’t be thought of as a substitute for a balanced diet based on whole foods. Spaghetti made from enriched flour may be higher in iron than the whole-grain variety, but it lacks fiber. A bowl of cereal may deliver 100 percent of the daily values for folic acid and vitamin B-12, but if it’s high in added sugars, it’s probably an unhealthy choice. If heavily fortified foods are a major part of your diet, check product labels so you can estimate your daily intake levels – getting too much of any nutrient can be bad for your health.
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: What About Fortified Foods?
- Health.gov: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010
- Harvard School of Public Health: Keep the Multi, Skip the Heavily Fortified Foods
- American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide; Roberta Larson Duyff, M.S., R.D.
- Wellness Foods A to Z: An Indispensible Guide for Health-Conscious Food Lovers; Sheldon Margen, M.D., et al.
Based just outside Chicago, Meg Campbell has worked in the fitness industry since 1997. She’s been writing health-related articles since 2010, focusing primarily on diet and nutrition. Campbell divides her time between her hometown and Buenos Aires, Argentina.