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.
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.
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