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, folic acid may have been added to your bread, in addition to iodised salt.  

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. Fortifing 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 is 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 milk and plant-based milk alternatives, juices and baby foods are commonly fortified foods.  

They may have one or several vitamins and minerals added such as folic acid, iodine, vitamin D, iron, zinc, calcium, and B vitamins.  

This is due to their known health benefits including: 

  • Folic acid or folate which 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.
  • Vitamin D is important for bone health and immunity. Not getting enough vitamin D and calcium can lead to osteoporosis.  

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 Kiwi 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.