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Food fortification is the process of adding vitamins and nutrients to food and drinks. The term food fortification is often used to describe one of two main processes. The first process, also referred to as food enrichment, is the adding back of nutrients to foods and drinks that have been removed during processing. The second process is the addition of nutrients to foods that are either not naturally occurring in the food or are added at a higher concentration that what is naturally occurring.
While the idea of fortifying foods has been around for centuries, in the modern era, the first widespread practice of food fortification began with the addition of iodine to salt in the early 20th century. During that time period, goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid gland, was a common condition in areas that did not have high concentrations of iodine in the soil. Public health officials discovered that the consumption of iodine could prevent goiter and found that the addition of iodine to salt was a simple yet effective solution to the problem.
Other examples of widespread food fortification are the addition of Vitamin D to milk and the adding of certain B vitamins lost during processing to grains and grain products such as bread and flour. It was discovered that a deficiency of Vitamin D can inhibit the body’s ability to effectively absorb calcium and can also lead to rickets, which is a softening of bone tissue. Rickets was a common condition until the fortification of milk with Vitamin D. In the 1990s, folic acid was added to grain-based foods as it was discovered that the consumption of folic acid by women could reduce the instances of children born with neural tube birth defects.
Today, the process of food fortification has moved beyond simply addressing common vitamin and nutrient deficiencies to creating foods, often referred to as “functional foods,” that are believed to possess health benefits above and beyond what the food in its natural state would be able to do. Consumers are able to purchase foodstuffs such as yogurt with bacteria believed to help the digestive process; mayonnaise with omega-3 fatty acids, and even soft drinks fortified with vitamins and minerals. There are some concerns with food fortification as many believe that consumers may be lulled into consuming greater quantities of foods that may not necessarily be healthy, believing that the foods are indeed healthy. For example, a cereal that has been fortified with vitamins and minerals may still possess high amounts of sugar, while potato chips that have been fortified with omega-3 fatty acids may still contain higher than recommended levels of sodium. As with all foods, the consumer should take the time to read and understand the nutritional labels of fortified foods.