Natural or Fortified Foods – What are the Facts?

We received the following inquiry through the website:

“Is there a difference between consuming naturally occurring nutrients from food and food fortified with the same amount of nutrients?”

To answer the question, we enlisted the help of Connie Diekman, a Registered Dietitian and Director of University Nutrition from Washington University as well as past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
First, let’s define “fortify.” Fortification is a process of adding in a nutrient or ingredient that was not found naturally in that product. This is different from “enriched,” which means that the food item originally did have that nutrient or ingredient, but more of it was added, either to increase the nutrition or because processing of the food removed it.

In terms of any difference consuming a product with natural nutrients or with added (fortified) nutrients, Diekman said, “Whether naturally occurring or added to foods, the body will process vitamins and minerals in the same way if overall nutrition is good. Consuming foods that are fortified, but that have overall low nutritional value, may limit how individual nutrients are used.”

Here are some examples of fortified foods that are great additions to the diet:

  • Grain products (like bread and pasta) with folic acid. Folic acid is a B vitamin found in foods like leafy green vegetables, beans and orange juice. These provide an excellent way to help reduce the incidence of the birth defect spina bifida when consumed by pregnant women. 
  • Milk fortified with vitamin D. Vitamin D is crucial for strong bones, normal muscle function and aids in keeping the immune system healthy. In North America and around the world, a deficiency of vitamin D has been on the rise in recent years. Adding vitamin D to milk is great, especially for the elderly (whose bodies don’t make vitamin D as efficiently from sunshine as their younger peers) as well as for children and people who live in harsh climates who aren’t able to gain the nutrient from sunlight exposure.
  • Fortified orange juice with calcium. Just as with milk, orange juice can be a healthy dietary inclusion. Having a selection of juices that include antioxidants and bone-building calcium and vitamin D only increases its healthfulness.
  • Eggs fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. Typically, omega-3s come from fatty fish in the diet. Since they may help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, help improve brain function, prevent cancer, boost health of unborn babies and ease arthritis pain, getting them from another source is great especially for people who don’t get them from other foods.

Are there also fortified foods that don’t necessarily lead to benefits for consumers? “Foods low in nutrients that are fortified with vitamins and minerals won’t make those foods better choices. So, things like snack foods, cookies, etc. that are fortified are still foods to use on a limited basis,” said Diekman.

As a final recommendation, Diekman added, “The bottom-line is to consume meals that include a wide variety of foods. This is the best way to meet nutritional needs.”

Light Wheat Bread” by Stacy is licensed under CC BY 2.0.