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Demystifying Fortified Food

Consumers are always wary about what goes on in the food industry and how are foods are processed.  While I definitely promote a whole foods diet, we live in a world where it is near impossible to live without packaged foods, and there can be some healthy food items in the aisles of the grocery store!  

There are some places with food industry is actually working to better our health, and that can be in the area of food fortification.  For vegans and vegetarians and others with a specialized diet, it can sometimes be a bit more of a challenge to get the nutrients needed, so fortification can really help. I started to look into fortification of foods a bit more when counselling clients, and let me tell you it can be a bit of a confusing area.  I wanted to break down some of the basics - especially when it comes to vegan and vegetarian foods. 

But is adding iodine to salt a good idea?

This is a question I actually get quite a lot. Table salt and table salt replacements are mandated to have iodine added.  Kosher salts, sea salts and similar varieties are not. Goiters (enlarged thyroid gland) used to be common in some areas of Canada (like the Great Lake where I live!) where soil lacks natural iodine, and by making it mandatory in salt in 1949 it virtually eliminated this issue. So perhaps consider good ol' table salt over some of your more expensive specialty varieties. Between a bit of salt in your cooking (1/4 tsp salt fulfills about half your daily needs), and natural sources you won't have a problem meeting your needs. Currently, the government only allows iodine to be added to salt, baby cereals and meal replacements. 

What else do companies have to fortify?

Companies have to fortify margarine, 'fake' meats, flour, fruit drinks and drink crystals, meal replacements and dairy milks (not yogurt). Most of these are to be similar to what they are closely substituting (like the fake meats, fruit drinks, meal replacements), and others because they are common to the Canadian diets (like flour, margarine, dairy milk) and can help prevent diseases caused by deficiencies. Beriberi, pellegra and rickets used to be more common in Canada before they added things like thiamine (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3) and vitamin D to foods. 

What about vegan foods?

Imitation meat products like vegan ground beef have to be fortified in thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, vitamin B12, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, and certain amino acids to make them nutritionally similar to meat products. If you don't consume these types of products (or eat them often) you may want to check that you are getting enough of these nutrients other ways, in particular B12, iron and zinc. 

Egg replacers must also have vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folic acid, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, zinc, and potassium. Flour (enriched, and white flour) also cover thiamin, folic acid, riboflavin, iron and niacin. Breakfast cereals can be fortified with a variety of nutrients including iron, thiamine, niacin, folic acid and zinc but don' have to be - so check the label.

While food companies are allowed to up to 10% of the Daily Value of calcium or vitamin D into their foods, it isn't mandatory at this time for milk alternatives (like soy, nut milks) to be fortified, or yogurts.  So check your labels and try to buy ones that do! It's a huge pet peeve of mine that most plant based yogurts are lacking protein and calcium!! Vitamin D does have to be added to vegan margarines or butter substitutes. 

Shouldn't I be worried about getting too much?

Heath Canada does regulate how much vitamin or mineral can be added to a product. Some can be added in amounts of 20% of the Daily Value if they have very low risk, while others can be added only up to 10%.  There are some nutrients that the public is usually meeting their needs of, or may pose some risk if people have too much (or haven't been studied enough for risk), so these can only be added to certain food products or not at all. 

Savoured Bottomline: 

Fortified foods are nothing to fear, and can help you get the nutrients you need.  This doesn't mean you need to go out and buy more packaged products than you currently do, but now perhaps you can make the most out of the packaged products you do buy.  If you want to know more detail about food fortification in Canada, visit the food inspection agency website