Are fortified foods truly even better for you than whole foods?
If you walk down any grocery store’s middle aisles, you’re hit with hundreds of health claims about the nutrients found inside those packages. From “offers half your daily fiber needs” to “as much iron as a serving of black beans,” these claims might have you believe that you can get all of the nutrients you need without ever eating a plain old vegetable. But don’t be so quick to swear off the produce section.
Food fortification has played a major role in eliminating diseases related to micronutrient deficiencies such as pellagra, beriberi, rickets, and goiter. Beyond disease eradication, fortified foods provide essential nutrients to much of the population and can play an important role in promoting health, especially for those who don’t have regular access to a wide variety of foods. But just because you can get your daily dose of B vitamins from a box of cereal doesn’t mean you should skip eating fruits and vegetables.
Whole foods offer more than just vitamins and minerals
There are more than 25,000 known phytonutrients, or health-promoting compounds that come from plants, and scientists are discovering new ones every year. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are filled with phytonutrients that have been linked to reducing risk of chronic disease, promoting healthy aging, and even helping with athletic performance and recovery. Although phytonutrients aren’t essential for keeping you alive, they can help you thrive.
Most plant foods are also a good source of fiber. While many food companies fortify with fiber, the research on whether added fiber provides the same benefits as the type found naturally in whole foods is limited.
Food is more than the sum of its individual nutrients
Even if we could fortify foods with all of the known phytonutrients, you still may not get the benefit of eating the whole food. Nutrients in food work together in near-magical ways to provide a greater benefit, a concept known as food synergy. Research is still emerging in this area, but studies have already shown that some nutrients work better together and foods often come packaged with that benefit. For example, vitamin C aids in the absorption of iron: it turns out that spinach is a good source of both. (Nature’s pretty cool, right?)
Nutrition research often ties a food, not an individual nutrient, to a health benefit. For example, blueberries have been linked to enhanced brain function in aging adults, but we don’t know if that’s due to a specific antioxidant in blueberries or a group of nutrients working together.
On a larger scale, eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet have been linked to better heart health and improved aging. While there may be individual nutrients that contribute to those benefits, the true benefit comes from eating a diet filled with plants and some seafood — things you can’t get from only eating a lot of fortified foods.
Don’t forget to read the labels
Fortified foods may have more than just good stuff added. If they’re also filled with sugar and sodium as many packaged products are, you’re not doing yourself any favors when it comes to overall health.
So instead of relying on fortified foods to meet your nutrient needs, aim to eat a variety of whole foods and know that fortified foods (along with supplements), can help you close any nutrient gaps, especially for those nutrients that may be less abundant in whole foods, such as vitamin D.
At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to [email protected].