Foods With Something Extra - Added Nutrients (cont.)

The idea is to help Americans get all the nutrients they need from food. And it works! One of the most successful fortification programs involves folate, a B vitamin.

In the mid-1990s, government health statistics showed an increase in babies being born with neural tube defects (NTDs), improper development of the spinal cord and brain. Research showed a link between NTDs and the mothers? dietary intake of folate. So in 1998, the government began requiring that folate be added to certain grain products.

According to a recent study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, the folate fortification program has decreased the rate of NTDs by 19% -- a much better result than scientists predicted.

Enrichment vs. Supplements

So why not just take a supplement? Remember that the popularity of vitamin and mineral supplements has only gained momentum in the last 20 years or so.

And health care professionals have always relied on our nations' food supply to provide us with all the nutrients we need for good health. The only exceptions are during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and infancy, when it is virtually impossible to meet nutritional needs with food alone.

In general, a varied diet should provide all the nutrients needed for good health -- especially in light of all the foods that have added nutrients. But if your diet isn't always optimal diet, a daily multivitamin/multimineral supplement may be a good idea.

Food as Medicine

Fortified foods have taken on an entirely new role with the addition of cholesterol-binding stanols and sterols to margarines and, more recently, to orange juice. These functional foods are specifically aimed at consumers who are trying to lower their blood cholesterol levels.

Think of these foods as over-the-counter "medications" that allow certain people to manage high cholesterol without medication. (Of course, managing your cholesterol level should only be done under the supervision of your doctor.)

When these fortified margarines were first introduced to the market, they were expensive and you needed to eat a sizeable portion to get the cholesterol-lowering benefit. Welcome the newcomer: Minute Maid's fortified orange juice is priced the same as the rest of their juices -- and the recommended portion is reasonable.

Have We Gone Too Far?

Many nutritionists think we have crossed the line with some of the enriched, fortified, and functional foods. They maintain that fortification is no longer a public-health strategy, but an excuse to make junk food appear nutritious.

Their arguments often center on candy-like cereals that have been enriched with vitamins and minerals from A to Z. In their opinion, these super-fortified foods should not masquerade as nutritious.