On a trip to the supermarket, one can see the shelves stacked with ‘fortified’ consumer goods. The same is the case with television ads. Now it is not just our flour and oil that are ‘filled with the richness of minerals’, our toothpaste, shampoo, hair oil and even table salt are fortified by something that makes them better than the rest.
Food companies are battling among themselves to be the first to be able to fill the stomachs of the people. If one instant noodles’ pack says, ‘No MSG’ the other says, ‘With added vitamins’. Are these extra vitamins even beneficial to us? What good or harm are they doing? When the container says that the food within it is ‘fortified’, according to the WHO it means “the practice of deliberately increasing the content of an essential micro nutrient, i.e., vitamins and minerals (including trace elements), in a food irrespective of whether the nutrients were originally in the food before processing or not so as to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply and to provide a public health benefit with minimal risk to health.”
So the ‘good stuff’ is added to the food to make it healthier. This can be a commercial choice on the part of the manufacturer. Some countries though, have to fortify their food because of the risk of malnourishment and because the soil there is deficient of those essential vitamins and minerals. For daily urban life, ‘enriched’ food would definitely be a better option than fortified because that means that the nutritional value of that particular food has been replenished after it was lost during processing. Enriched food doesn’t contain any more nutritional value than it had naturally.
When going to the supermarket, we don’t really understand these terms. We just believe that if it is ‘fortified’ or ‘enriched’ it must be good for heath. It is a proven fact that the public in general is becoming more and more health conscious. Making use of that, food companies, especially ones that make products for children, are using these techniques and terms more often than not to keep themselves ahead in a very competitive market. Some fortification in food is necessary though. WHO and FAO have studies that state that one in three people in the world suffer from iodine deficiency. Iodised salt hence is a good way for people to get their required intake of the mineral. Another common fortification is fluoride in toothpaste, which prevents tooth decay but an excess of fluoride can cause staining. Fortification can be done at a genetic level, for instance
in the case of ‘golden rice’ that is bred to contain beta carotene, which is the source of vitamin A in orange coloured food like carrot and sweet potato.
One of the most common products to be fortified is milk and its many variants found in the market are proof of that. Skim, whole, light, with added vitamins such as A and D as well as calcium are the choices available to consumers.
One of the greatest criticisms arise from this. Is the price increase because of this fortification even worth it? Vitamin D is a fat soluble micro nutrient. In skimmed milk, the fat is taken out but the Vitamin D is added. Since there is no fat in the milk, the vitamin is just flushed out of our bodies and is therefore not absorbed.
Another criticism is, what if our body doesn’t require the extra nutrients, as in the case of fluoride? Excessive intake of most of these nutrients can be toxic for us. Many food items have been banned by the FAO and WHO because the fortification caused liver and kidney damage in children.
Some may believe in organic foods and shun all forms of genetically modified foodstuffs, but science, WHO and FAO are pro-fortification and enrichment.
Choosing a side in this battle is a big dilemma as no one is wrong. A balanced approach is what one can take, trying to get all the nutrition required to live a healthy life from the natural organic source, without being blind to the shortcomings of the modern farming in terms of poor soil quality and usage of chemicals. These do cause the nutritional level of natural products to subside and hence supplements have become crucial in a contemporary human’s life.