It recently came to my attention that I might need to take a few nutritional supplements, namely, Vitamin B12, Iron and Folate (Vitamin B9). When the doctor suggested a supplement, I was skeptical. Surely I’d be able to get these nutrients from good old-fashioned food, right? I decided to look into it.
Upon further research, I found that this vitamin and nutrient combination, even though it's super important, is not terribly common in whole foods. While you can find lots of foods that are rich with any one of these nutrients, it’s not so easy to find a food that is a good source of all three. Of all the delicious and nutritious food on Earth, the best sources, according to my research, were: beef liver, crab and fortified breakfast cereal.
With choices like those, even though I am a fan of crab cakes and pâté, the easiest foodstuff to include in my daily diet is obviously the breakfast cereal. But I’d always thought that fortified and enriched foods were not as good somehow, though I have never been clear on exactly why that is.
So, I looked it up and what I found had a rich history. It turns out that this trio of nutrients is so important to our overall health that, as a matter of public health, common foods are often enriched or fortified with them to ensure that people get enough.
But, what are enriched and fortified foods, and are these food sources a good way to get your vitamins and minerals?
Way back in the Middle Ages, white flour was presumed healthier than brown (or whole grain) flour and for good reason. Since white flour is more processed, mold and fungus are less likely to grow in it than it would in brown flour. Having access to white flour would have drastically cut your chances of contracting food-borne illnesses from the most common foodstuffs, bread and baked goods. They didn’t have refrigeration back then, after all.
However, despite implementation of modern advancements which would have made it perfectly safe to eat brown bread again, it wasn’t until the 1920’s, that the loss of essential nutrients was correlated to the processing of grains. By then, white bread was the norm and no one wanted to eat brown bread. To address the problem, the idea of “enriching” these foods, or adding these nutrients back to the flour, was introduced as a solution.
Still, it wasn’t until the 1940’s, when food of any kind was scarce, that there was an international effort to improve the health of the wartime populations. Processed flour was chosen for enrichment due to its commonplaceness. Public health officials figured that flour was likely to contribute to the diets of both the well-off and the poor, so it was the ideal candidate for enrichment.
Fortification increases the amount of nutrients in a food product, whether they were present before processing or not. Fortification of cereals was part of a strategy by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in order to address global nutritional problems.
In a lot of cases, food fortification came as a result of a particular public health need. For example, in 1924, Iodine was added to salt in order to prevent the wealth of problems that had arisen as a result of Iodine Deficiencies. By 1998, Folic Acid was added to flour, baked goods and cereal to prevent abundant Neural Tube Defects in infants—it is so effective at reducing this risk that more than 50 countries require folate fortification in certain foods. Another common fortification is Vitamin D, which was added to milk in the early 1900s. At the time the US government decided to fortify milk, 80% of children in Boston had rickets.
So should I take supplements or eat Shreddies?
Ever since the introduction of fortified and enriched foods, the general public has been a whole lot healthier. For example, when’s the last time you heard of someone who had rickets or scurvy? And in countries that have fluoridated water, we’ve seen up to a 40% reduction in childhood cavities.
Still, I would hesitate to say that enrichment is the best way to get these nutrients. For one thing, proper absorption and dosage can be a problem. The bio-availability of most nutrients is a matter of relationship with the other nutrients in a whole food. An example of this is iron, which is best absorbed through animal food products. Cereal is typically enriched with plant-based iron, or elemental iron. In comparison with animal products, both of these sources boast a fraction of the absorbability because of the structure of the added nutrient and because it is isolated from other vitamins and nutrients that aid in absorption.
The thing is, life is different now than it was in the middle ages. In North America particularly, we have a lot of options and are armed with a wealth of information about food—how it’s made and where it comes from. Since enriched food is processed until the nutrients are lost, it seems to me that eating products that are less processed is a better answer to the problem of missing nutrients in enriched foods.
Fortified food on the other hand, is a different story. When it comes to a addressing widespread deficiencies, public health advisories and doctor advice have been pretty effective, historically speaking. It's probably wise to welcome the supplemental support available to us in fortified food and supplements, when necessary.
To sum it up, enriching means adding the original nutrients back into processed foods and fortifying means adding greatly-needed nutrients to foods that might not have had them in the first place. Government sanctioned nutritional fortification has prevented a whole lot of health problems—so that doesn’t sound so bad at all. In the case of enrichment, it does seem like a lot of extra work, not to mention stress on resources and the environment, to produce an inferior product to the ones that nature can provide all on it’s own.
At Science World, we are really interested in human body science. Our BodyWorks gallery is under construction until May 2017, but you can still find some awesome exhibits on the second floor that will help you better understand human biology.