What are fortified foods and are they good for you?

If you’ve just munched through your favourite bowl of cereal for brekkie or a delicious sandwich for lunch, chances are you’ve eaten something that has been fortified. Breakfast cereals can be enriched with vitamins and minerals, while milk, whether dairy or plant-based, may have extra calcium or nutrients such as vitamin A or D added. And in your sandwich, thiamin (vitamin B1), folic acid and iodised salt would have been added to your bread, and vitamin D to your margarine.

Fortified foods have one or more vitamin or mineral added when they are made. So why are foods fortified? And are they good for us? We’ve asked Sanitarium dietitian and Corporate Regulatory Manager Alison Oliver to answer the most common questions on fortified foods.  

Are fortified foods safe?  

Food manufacturers can’t simply go-to-town sprinkling vitamins and minerals into food mixes. Food fortification – whether mandatory or voluntary – is tightly regulated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, which dictates whether a vitamin and mineral can be added to a certain type of food, as well as how much can be added.  

Why are foods fortified? 

Fortifying foods is not a new trend. The process of fortifying foods actually dates back 100 years, when food manufacturers in the US first added iodine to salt to help school children suffering from goitres – a swelling of the neck and thyroid gland linked to iodine deficiency. Within a decade, serious problems with iodine deficiency had almost been eliminated.  

The success saw fortifying foods become more common place, especially to address vitamin and mineral deficiencies during the first and second World Wars.  

Today, fortified foods continue to play an important role in helping to fill the gap when it comes to vitamin deficiencies, especially for kids, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, people  on calorie restricted diets or possibly even people following vegetarian or vegan diets if they are not well-planned. Fortified food ‘analogues’ (such as plant-based milks or meat alternatives) with key vitamins and minerals more closely resemble the nutrient profile of their traditional dietary counterparts and also help to ensure that consumers are not missing out on important nutrients due to a preference or need for these foods.  

Foods are also fortified to replace vitamins and minerals that may have been lost during processing, handling or storing. 

What are the most common fortified foods?  

It’s foods that people buy regularly, are cheap and are eaten everyday – that’s why fortifying foods are such an effective way to help bump up intakes of key vitamins and minerals across the whole population.  

Breakfast cereals, bread, flour, margarine, salt, snack bars, dairy and milk and plant-based milk alternatives, juices, and baby foods are all commonly fortified foods.  

In Australia there are some foods that are legally required to be fortified – mandatory fortifications

This includes: 

  • Breads, rolls and sweet breads, even flour for baking at home – folic acid must be added to wheat flour. Folic acid or folate is important for growth and development and is vital during pregnancy. It’s been shown to prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in babies. Bread must also use iodised salt to help prevent iodine deficiency – iodine is important for brain function.  

  • Edible oil spreads, like margarine, must have added vitamin D. Vitamin D is important for bone health and immunity. Our main source is sunlight, and while  Australia is generally a pretty sunny place, because of our lifestyles as many as 23% of women may have a vitamin D deficiency. Not getting enough vitamin D and calcium can lead to osteoporosis.  

Other foods, like milks and cereals, often voluntarily choose to include essential vitamins and minerals with known health benefits such as folic acid, iodine, vitamin D, iron, zinc, calcium, thiamine, omega-3 and plant sterols.  

Are fortified foods good for you?  

Yes. The reality is the majority of us don’t eat enough fruit, veggies, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds to get all the vitamins and minerals we need naturally.  

In fact, many people wouldn’t reach their daily nutritional requirements without fortified foods. For decades, fortified foods have helped to keep us well and reduce the impact of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which can be really debilitating and even deadly. 

Even today, breakfast cereals are the leading source of iron for Aussie kids.   

That said, just because a product has added vitamins and minerals it doesn’t automatically make it healthy. It’s always important to check the Health Star Rating and choose the product with the highest rating. If a product doesn’t have a Health Star rating, check out the nutrition information panel on pack and choose foods that are lower in salt, sugar and saturated fat.  

Can I eat too much of a fortified food?  

It would be extremely difficult to get too much of a vitamin by eating fortified foods. Eating foods naturally rich in B6 (potatoes, chickpeas, bananas, poultry, fish) is safe, even in excessive amounts

But it’s important to be aware that if you are taking supplements and eating foods that have been fortified with vitamins and minerals, you may be getting more of certain nutrients than you realise. If you’re ever worried check with your GP or a dietitian.