The paradox of vitamin enrichment

Processed food
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Vitamin deficiencies are rare in North American diets, but are we getting our nutrients from the wrong places?

Diseases associated with serious vitamin deficiencies, like scurvy and rickets, seem like somewhat old-fashioned problems to most Americans. The nutrition panels on many items in our groceries stores, from breads and cereals to granola bars and yogurts, boast plenty of vitamins A, C, and calcium.

Yet a new set of troubling diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, has emerged among the eaters of heavily processed foods. These conditions creep up on us more slowly and their cause seems more insidious.

Katherine Price, the author of “Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection,” draws an interesting parallel between these two phenomena in a recent New York Times opinion piece. She argues that the rise of synthetic vitamins has helped to mask the poor nutritional quality of processed foods. Further, supplementing vitamins in packaged foods has become necessary given most people’s dependency on industrial foodstuffs:
“Given the poor quality of the typical American diet, this fortification is far from superfluous. In fact, for products like milk and flour, where fortification and enrichment have occurred for so long that they’ve become invisible, it would be almost irresponsible not to add synthetic vitamins. If food companies didn’t do so voluntarily, the government might have to require it, to make sure that we didn’t accidentally eat ourselves into nutritional deficiencies.”

Of course, governments don’t have to require companies to add vitamins, because we all know that food with lots of vitamins is healthy. So adding them to foods like juice or bread, which might not have particularly high nutritional profiles otherwise, gives these products a healthy boost.

But are we getting our vitamins from the right places? It’s clear that something is being lost in the process—quite literally.

In 2011, a study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health changed the way many of us think about vitamins. It found that nutrients present in broccoli are better absorbed by the body when you eat fresh broccoli florets, compared to when you take a broccoli supplement. The researchers suggested that this might be because the broccoli contains other compounds that aid in the body’s absorption of the nutrient being studied.

This contributed to a cry for us to all eat more fruits, vegetables and grains in a less processed state—not enriched “nutraceuticals” as Michael Pollan calls them. But what’s also interesting is that the nutrients being studied were isothiocyanates, anti-cancer compounds. Isothiocyanates aren’t exactly something we look for on the side of cereal box.

There’s still much to be learned about how food interacts with our bodies. Vitamins may only be one factor in a system of micronutrients that medical scientists are just beginning to uncover. It’s cavalier to assume we even know all the compounds that should be added back into processed foods if they are to replicate what’s found in fresh foods, or understand how these compounds interact. At the same time, packaged foods have higher concentrations of sugars, sodium and trans fats--ingredients all linked with chronic diseases.

Processed foods take an enormous toll on the environment, from synthetic fertilizers to pesticides to animal waste pollution to greenhouse gases. Let’s also not forget that it may take you less than a minute to eat a candy bar, but its plastic wrapper will take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

Price argues that vitamin enrichment has allowed packaged food manufacturers to prevent gross nutritional deficiencies, yet it’s becoming clear that they are still causing plenty of other problems.

The paradox of vitamin enrichment
Vitamin deficiencies are rare in North American diets, but are we getting our nutrients from the wrong places?

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