The Additives You Want in Your Food

by International Food Information Council
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The Additives You Want in Your Food

More than ever, the public is interested in what goes into their food. Some of us find solace in scrutinizing the ingredients list for specific additives. It’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned with what we put into our mouths, but this has also sparked an unscientific fear. This fear is what sparks arguments like “if you can’t pronounce it, then it shouldn’t be in food” or “you shouldn’t eat something that has extra ingredients in it.” But, are these arguments completely valid?

A History of Food Fortification

Certain ingredients added to foods have improved public health for decades. The U.S. has fortified and enriched foods since the early 20th century, when health experts noted that nutritional deficiencies caused significant problems and decided something had to be done. (Side note: These nutritional deficiencies also decreased the number of healthy potential enlistees during World War II.) Here’s a brief history:

  • 1920s: Iodine is added to salt as a preventative measure against goiter.
  • 1930s: Milk is enriched with vitamin D to prevent rickets.
  • 1940s: Bread is fortified with thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and iron to prevent beriberi, pellagra and anemia.
  • 1988: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration adds folic acid to grain products to prevent neural tube defects in newborns.

Often times, these “additives” aren’t easily recognized: Folate, folic acid, folinic acid, riboflavin, 25-hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D], calcidiol and ergocalciferol are not readily associated with their vitamin counterparts. 

The B Vitamins

Thiamin, riboflavin and niacin are three common B vitamins (vitamins B1, B2 and B3, respectively) associated with supporting a healthy metabolism and nervous system plus beautiful skin and shiny hair. Fortifying foods with these B vitamins began in the 1940s, as an effort to reduce the risk of pellagra and beriberi. Never heard of pellagra and beriberi? Well, consider yourself lucky since the symptoms of these now largely eradicated diseases are quite scary — and deadly if left untreated. Common foods that provide these vitamins include whole and enriched grains, beans, meat, milk products, nuts and eggs.

Folate, folic acid or folinic acid are all pseudonyms for vitamin B9, which is essential for basic metabolism (breaking down food for energy) and a healthy nervous system. Folate is the latest micronutrient recommended by the FDA to be added to foods, to reduce the risk of spina bifida and other neural tube defects in the brain and spinal cord of newborns.

Fun fact: “Folate” is the correct term when referring to the vitamin found naturally in foods such as leafy greens and beans; “folic acid” is the synthetic form found in supplements and enriched and fortified foods such as juices and enriched grain products. The important point is that all of these names refer to the same beneficial B vitamin.

Vitamin D

Lastly, let’s talk about 25-hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D], calcidiol, ergocalciferol, dihydroxyvitamin D [1,25(OH)2D], calcitriol and cholecalciferol. These are all vitamin D. Vitamin D is critical for the absorption and use of calcium, and it has been shown to be key for immune, bone and brain health. Studies suggest that the majority of Americans are deficient in vitamin D. While sunlight is one source of vitamin D, there are other dietary sources, including milk with added vitamin D, oily fish (such as salmon, sardines and tuna), mushrooms, some fortified cereals and dietary supplements.

The Takeaway

Even though some essential micronutrients have scary-sounding names that may be difficult to pronounce, it does not mean we should fear them or omit them from our food. Rather, these ingredients should be hailed for their contributions to our health. Before you write off a food ingredient you don’t recognize or think is scary, do some research to know the difference!

By Megan Meyer, PhD

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  • Frank

    You should get all the nutrients You need from unfortified whole foods. If the government needs to declare that all bread must contain ground up vitamins that should be an indictment of our standard diet, not an encouragement to follow the misguided guidelines. BTW if you happen to be one of the 40% of the population with an MTHFR gene mutation you will want to avoid folic acid at all costs. Folate from greens (methylated folate actually) and folic acid in bread are not the same thing for you as the author claims.

    • acninee

      Thanks! I was almost starting to feel guilty that our household makes it’s own bread weekly.

  • B-gun

    Frank makes a very good point about people with the MTHFR gene mutation. People with this gene actually need the folinic acid (not folic acid) supplement, which is one step further broken down. People with the gene are less able to process folic acid (but also pretty bad at breaking down natural folate). Mothers with the MTHFR gene mutation also more likely to have newborns with neural tube defects, so perhaps the FDA needs to have a look at newer research!
    (P.S. Just as a side note, given how common MTHFR gene mutations are, how few people are aware they have them, and the serious consequences such as mental illness, reduced ability to carry a pregnancy to term and increased risk of birth defects, it might be a good idea to get tested!)