Our society has become so obsessed with multitasking, we now want our food to do it too. It’s just about impossible to walk down a supermarket aisle without seeing a nutrient-enhanced product, which begs the question: Are we so unhealthy that we really need protein in our ketchup?
No, we aren’t. But that hasn’t always been the case. “Functional foods” are products that have been fortified with vitamins or nutrients for added nutritional value beyond that of the original food or drink. Enhancing food with extra nutrients actually began out of necessity as a way to address public health crises throughout the 20th century. Iodine was added to salt to treat goiter. Breads and grains were enriched with niacin to lower incidences of pellagra. Vitamin D gave milk a boost to fight rickets, a disease that causes bone deformation in children.
What began as an incredibly efficient way to keep a large population healthy has now turned into a highly effective marketing tool. Today, adding vitamins and nutrients to food is big business. You can now find added nutrients in everything from ketchup to peanut butter to cookies. Industry analysts predict the global market for functional foods and beverages will reach $130 billion by next year.
"Fortification is a tool to improve nutritional quality of the public," Angela Ginn, a licensed dietitian and nutritionist, told Yahoo Health.“However some nutrients are available in so many products and over consumption risk may out weigh the benefit.” That recently became a reality when the Environmental Working Group reported that fortified cereals could put kids’ health at risk.
That’s not to say that all fortified foods should be avoided. Most people can get the essential nutrients they need through a balanced diet of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish and dairy, said Ginn, who is the national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But there are three key nutrients often used in functional foods that she recommends.
Vitamin D: A fat-soluble vitamin that helps the body absorb calcium, vitamin D is found naturally in only a few foods. Exposure to sunlight triggers the body to produce vitamin D, but too much time in the sun poses its own health risks. According to the National Institutes of Health, fortified foods provide most of the vitamin D in the American diet. “Approximately 60 percent of Americans do not meet the daily vitamin D recommendation,” said Ginn. “It is a key nutrient for disease prevention such as osteoporosis, depression, and even autoimmune conditions.”
Recommended daily intake: Infants: 400 IU; Ages 1 to70: 600 IU; Ages 70 and up: 800 IU
Recommended vitamin-D fortified foods: milk, yogurt, orange juice