Fortified Fakery: Why Added Vitamins Don’t Redeem Junk Food

You often see adverts that boast the new-found wellness properties of a sugary cereal, which declares that the diabetes-inducing breakfast has been ‘fortified with 11 essential vitamins and minerals-part of a complete breakfast!’ The food industry would have us believe this makes the food better for us. However, in the same way that spraying perfume at the dump doesn’t make the rubbish go away, fortified junk foods are still junk.

Food manufacturers are playing fast and loose with the terms “functional food” and “functionally enhanced food”, which is putting your wellbeing at risk. As Michael Pollan argued in his January 2007 New York Times Magazine story, the nutrient fortification of everything implies that a food itself is nutritious, and this is the very epitome of the dangerous trend Pollan referred to as “nutritionism”. Can a food that is dysfunctional to begin with be made functional with the addition of vitamins and minerals? Or is it, to borrow a metaphor, like putting lipstick on a pig?

As there isn’t a commonly accepted definition of a functional food, we’re getting into all kinds of trouble. Functional food should be a term used to describe a food that is of intrinsic nutritional value, which, when nutrients are added for some specific and measurable function, becomes enhanced.  It makes sense that food cannot be “functional” if the function in question cannot be specified or measured.

Take a dressing or a spread that has been made with monounsaturated oils and/or omega-3 polyunsaturated oils. This food has intrinsic nutritional value; heart health. Now, if manufacturers were to add lipid-lowering plant sterols to the dressing or spread, it would qualify as a functional food. The addition has been directed at a discrete and measurable function; plant sterols can lower LDL cholesterol. Another good example would be adding probiotic bacteria to organic, fat-free, plain yoghurt.

Therefore, fortification should not be used to exonerate nutrition that is missing in the food itself. Adding vitamins to fizzy drinks or sweetened water does not redeem the product, it only makes it easier to market to unsuspecting parents. The food industry might like you to believe that enough nutrients at the end of a long ingredient list of junk confer a salutary glow, but doing so would be, in a word, dysfunctional.

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