How useful are enriched foods?
We’ve lost count of the foods that are enriched in Vitamin D, iron, vitamin A, calcium, Omega 3 and so on. But how useful are all these extra nutrients for our health?
Does consuming enriched food products really make a difference to your health? In France, where they are a little fussier about their food than the Brits, the government has been taking a closer look.
Professor Irène Margaritis, head of the nutrition unit at the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES), and nutritionist Dr Pascale Modaï tell us all we need to know about enriched food.
The EU gets a handle on enriched foods
A food is said to be “enriched” when nutrients (vitamins, minerals) or other components (omega 3, lactic ferments, fibre) are added to it during its production. “Since the harmonization of laws in the EU, all food products can be enriched in vitamins, minerals and other approved micronutrients,” explains Professor Irène Margaritis.
As for regulations, the chemical substances approved for this have been set out in a list. “These substances should not be toxic and should be bioavailable,” our expert explains. “But this isn’t the real issue here; the key point is the quantity of the nutrients,” she underlines.
In fact, normally, foods are supposedly enriched to help individuals who suffer from deficiencies to achieve the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) or Estimated Average Requirements (EARS). As all products can now be enriched, the real question is what are the limitations on enriching food?
“ANSES has carried out experiments to see just what amount of enrichment is possible: the objective is to make sure the consumer does not go beyond the limits of safety,” explains Professor Margaritis. This is especially an issue as these enriched foods can lead to a higher concentration of nutrients accumulating in the body when vitamin supplements are taken as well.
Many specialists have consequently sounded the alarm concerning the inevitable vitamin overdoses. A dose within the limits of safety has been outlined for some vitamins, and anything beyond this limit might have harmful effects. Quite often, the dose deemed to be safe is not that different from the recommended intake. The maximum amount a food may be enriched safely is currently in the process of being established in Europe.
Enriched foods often serve no purpose…
In general, those in the richer countries don’t really need to be eating enriched foods. Certain of these products can however prove useful for some nations whose populations are vulnerable to particular deficiencies.
"The consumption of enriched food by someone who does not have any kind of deficiency does not serve any nutritional purpose," Professor Margaritis assures us. Similarly, according to Dr Pascale Modaï, "From a medical point of view, real deficiencies don’t occur all that frequently," and he adds that "with a varied diet there cannot be any deficiency".
It’s a similar story for Prof Margaritis: “If you eat varied and balanced meals, you will not generally need enriched foods”. The second thing to remember is that, “Before thinking about going for enriched foods, you should opt instead for foods that are natural sources of nutrients,” advises Dr. Modaï.
For example, if you need calcium, you should try consuming some dairy products rather than orange juice enriched in calcium. Don’t forget that, “If there’s added calcium, then there will be added calories too,” the nutritionist points out.
“We really need to get away from the idea that more is better: in nutrition, when you reach the optimal levels of nutrients corresponding to the body’s needs, even if you get more, there will be no further gain,” underlines Prof Margaritis. “If you try to fill up an already full glass already of water, it will overflow. It’s the same thing for the body, as when it receives more nutrients than it needs it will store them up or eliminate them, as they serve no purpose,” she explains. In this way, that the body risks over-metabolising vitamins and minerals.
Many food products are enriched in vitamin B12 when there is actually no widespread deficiency in this vitamin globally. “It’s absurd that this vitamin is being added to products when there is no need for it,” Professor Margaritis complains. She goes on to give another example: “If you consume foods that are enriched in zinc all the time, you risk becoming deficient in copper as these are in competition with each other in the intestines.”
… but enriched foods can be useful in some cases
An individual approach should therefore be adopted when it comes to enriched food. As Professor Margaritis makes clear: “Nutritional deficiencies generally occur in groups at the fringes of society”. In fact, deficiencies observed in specific groups of people can mean that enriched food is helpful in certain circumstances.
Food enriched in vitamin B9 can be useful for women who are trying to conceive. Similarly, consuming products enriched in B12 can be useful for the elderly, particularly for those who don’t eat meat and may be deficient in this vitamin.
A calcium supplement can be beneficial for adolescents and for women who are trying to conceive as they can be lacking in this nutrient. “Iron enriched food can also be useful for women as they are often deficient,” adds Dr Modaï. Another widespread deficiency is provoked by a low intake of dietary fibre. Here, enriched cereals can be helpful. And those who don’t eat fish might consider eating products enriched in iodine.
On the other hand, you can forget about food enriched in omega 3: "You would have to eat an enormous amount of margarine enriched in omega 3 in order to get any benefit from it," explains Dr Modaï. You should always remember that enriched foods are in no way essential. In fact, in the case of nutritional deficiency, a sufficient intake of food naturally rich in the nutrient in question will meet the body’s needs.
Overall, before eating enriched food, the best thing is to get the opinion of a health professional, who will be able to tell you if you actually have any deficiencies after an assessment of your diet, and will also be able to advise you on dosage if it is found that you do have a vitamin deficiency.
Avoid the pain of paying more for food that in fact has no real nutritional benefit!
Source: Advice from the French health authority, 2009
Copyright © 2011 Doctissimo
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