Fortified Foods: Benefits and Risks

More than two-thirds of Americans don’t eat fruits or vegetables at least twice a day, and most don’t meet the recommended dietary guidelines.Worldwide, more than 2 billion people have micronutrient deficiencies because they aren’t getting enough essential vitamins and minerals each day. Many Americans also aren’t meeting the requirement for vitamins and minerals, especially children.Fortified and enriched foods were introduced in the 1930s and 1940s. They were intended to help boost vitamin and mineral intake with foods that adults and children were already eating, like grains and milk.

What’s a fortified or enriched food?

Fortified foods are those that have nutrients added to them that don’t naturally occur in the food. These foods are meant to improve nutrition and add health benefits. For example, milk is often fortified with vitamin D, and calcium may be added to fruit juices.

An enriched food means that nutrients that were lost during processing are added back in. Many refined grains are enriched. Wheat flour, for example, may have folic acid, riboflavin, and iron added back in after processing. This is intended to restore its original vitamin levels.

Are fortified and enriched foods healthy?

Historically, fortifying foods has been widely successful in the United States. Common diseases that are caused by nutrient deficiencies, like rickets and pellagra, have been virtually eliminated.

Even though fortification has increased vitamin and mineral consumption in the United States, there haven’t been studies on nutrients other than folic acid that show that fortified foods are improving our health. There are also concerns that fortified and enriched foods may be causing people to get harmful amounts of certain vitamins and minerals.

Fortified and enriched foods can be a part of a healthy, nutrient-rich diet. But whether or not they’re beneficial depends on age and a few other factors.

Fortified and enriched foods for kids

Children are particularly vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies. Without added vitamins and minerals, many children and teens don’t meet daily nutrient requirements. Fortified and enriched foods are important sources of nutrients for kids, especially for iron, zinc, and B vitamins.

Unfortunately, many fortified or enriched foods are heavily processed and packaged. They often come with high sodium, fat, and sugar content. Fortification doesn’t make them inherently healthy or good for you.

Many younger children are also at risk of overdosing on some added vitamins, according to a report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The report showed that many fortified foods currently available contain levels of vitamins that aren’t appropriate for children. Many children may also exceed daily recommended values by eating a variety of fortified foods throughout the day, or by eating more than one serving. Nearly half of children ages 2 to 8 get too much zinc, and 13 percent consume too much vitamin A. These overdoses are potentially dangerous.

Fortified and enriched foods, especially foods not formulated for children, may not be safe for all children. The EWG recommends that children eat products with no more than 20 to 25 percent of the adult recommended daily value for vitamin A, niacin, and zinc. You can find this value on the nutrition label. While it’s still important to keep an eye on these nutrients, tweens and teens may benefit from including fortified or enriched foods in a balanced diet.