Why the Government Adds Nutrients to So Many Common Foods

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Within the United States, certain foods have been "fortified" or "enriched" with additional nutrients to prevent certain illnesses or diseases as a public health measure since the 1920s. These substances have been added to bread, milk, and other supermarket staples to encourage a balanced and nutritious diet.

Added nutrient 1: iodine

Iodine is an essential element the thyroid gland needs to produce basic hormones. Because the human body cannot produce its own iodine, it must be consumed as part of a healthy diet. Iodine deficiency is estimated to affect about 2 billion people globally. It’s the leading cause of goiter and hypothyroidism, among other preventable conditions.

Where it's added: table salt

Iodine has been commercially added to salt in the United States since 1924, but can also be found naturally in dairy and meat. Edible salt is iodized by spraying a solution of potassium iodate. In fact, it only takes 57 grams of the solution (and costs less than $2 USD) to iodize one ton of salt.

Added nutrient 2: folic acid

Also known as "folate" and one of the B vitamins, folic acid is essential for the production of RNA/DNA; the ability to metabolize amino acids; and, ultimately, cell division. Because it cannot be produced by the human body, it also must be consumed as part of a healthy diet. Folate deficiency can lead to anemia and prenatal defects.

Where it's added: grain products

The FDA first created regulations in 1996 that required that folate be added to enrich grain products such as flour. While the introduction of folic acid has been linked with a reduction in prenatal birth defects, concerns persist that these regulations might inadvertently expose the public to too much supplementary folate.

Added nutrient 3: niacin

Niacin (also known as vitamin B3 or nicotinic acid) is an essential nutrient for healthy metabolism, as well as organ and nervous system function. Niacin deficiency, also called pellagra, has several symptoms, but is commonly identified by the three Ds: diarrhea, dermatitis, and dementia.

Where it’s added: bread

Niacin is found naturally in meats, seafood, and spices, but also has been added to bread in the U.S. since 1938. Historically, niacin deficiency was found in poorer regions and among families that relied on corn/maize as a dietary staple. While corn does contain niacin, it is not readily bioavailable in the necessary quantities.

Added nutrient 4: vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential to help the intestines absorb many nutrients (most importantly calcium). Unlike many other vitamins, it can be synthesized naturally in the body through exposure to sunlight. Deficiency can lead to a severe bone disease known as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.

Where it’s added: milk

Vitamin D has been commercially added to milk in the U.S. since the 1930s because it does not occur naturally in many foods. While most people get at least some vitamin D from sun exposure, it is not always sufficient and overexposure to UV rays can lead to skin cancer.

Added nutrient 5: vitamin A

Vitamin A is critical for bodily functions that include growth, immunity, and vision. Luckily, this nutrient is found in many foods, including: cod liver oil, sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, and spinach. Deficiency can cause vision loss and complicate pregnancies. It is known to affect the poorest segments of populations.

Where it’s added: skim/reduced fat milk

Vitamin A is commonly reintroduced to milk in the form of palmitate because much of the naturally occurring, fat-soluble form is stripped away during processing. Unfortunately, 1 cup of milk will only provide about 10 percent of the recommended Daily Value (DV) of vitamin A, so it’s important to make sure you're getting enough from other foods as well.

Added nutrient 6: iron

Iron is a trace element found in every cell in the body and is essential for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Iron deficiency is thought to be the most common nutritional deficiency in the world and is marked by anemia, a common blood disorder. Symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, weakness, and impaired immune function.

Where it’s added: cereal

Iron is typically added to breakfast cereals, but is also a common dietary supplement. It is found naturally in many foods but is especially abundant in its most bioavailable form (heme iron) in red meat. Vegans/vegetarians and those without access to meat, therefore, have to find adequate amounts of iron from other sources.