Feeding ourselves has never been simple as Michael Pollan points out in his bestselling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Our nutritional needs are highly complex compared to the rest of the animal kingdom (think of bamboo eating pandas or nectar feeding butterflies and bees). Perhaps it’s the price we pay for our (ahem, perceived) intelligence. It gives us reasons to invent words like creamy, gooey and yummy, often used to describe the reward foods we allow ourselves after finishing all of our Brussels sprouts. But as we know all too well, those reward foods have become the default diet for much of the developed world. Manufacturers not wanting to lose market share to the healthy food we can grow on our own found a way to keep us eating their processed foods, too. It’s called fortification. But what is it, exactly?
Adding nutrients to food is not new. We began adding iodine to salt in 1924 when incidences of goiter were on the rise. In the 1940s, breads began to include mandatory additions of niacin, thiamin and riboflavin. Fast forward to 2008 and the fortified foods industry was estimated at more than $30 billion with not only basic vitamins and minerals in milk and juice, but omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants for heart, eyes, skin and brain health found in everything from yogurts to soft drinks and cookies.
Vitamins and minerals used in fortification most often come via synthetics (chemically produced in laboratories that may or may not be located along the New Jersey turnpike) and can include a number of unnatural ingredients that make their health benefits questionable. An overwhelming number of common vitamins come from: Coal tar, petroleum, refined oils and methanol, and can use ammonia in processing. Then, those laboratory made vitamins are added to the denatured food that once had organically occurring nutrients in it, before being dried, extruded, boiled, mashed, pasteurized, homogenized, squeezed through massive factory machines, packaged and placed on the display stack at the end of the supermarket aisle.
If feeding ourselves has indeed always been a challenge, then the fortified processed food industry is like adding a blindfold and spinning us around umpteen times before letting us loose in a barren wasteland after not eating for a month. Ok, maybe that’s a bit extreme. Of course we do need vitamins and minerals, and the nutrient quality of our soil is a not-talked-about-enough concern. But our food excuses choices that are perpetuating the justification of sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals because of a touch of folic acid is only creating more problems, and the answer is probably not Wonder Classic Calcium Fortified Enriched Bread.
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Image: Stuart Conner