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Food Fortification

Did you know that during the middle ages, mothers in Central Europe would push iron nails into apples and leave them for a while, before feeding them to their kids to make them more energetic? [1] 

Back in the days in Mexico, for making tortillas, corn was soaked in lime water and a bit of ground limestone was added to tortillas, to make them more rich in Calcium. [1] 

These practices are know as food fortification which is the process of adding essential micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, trace elements) to food to make up for the nutrients that are absent or not present in significant amounts keeping in mind that the risk to one’s health is minimal.[2] This process helps address the issue of deficiencies which is persistent in many individuals across the globe. 

Food Fortification | Illustration by: Kieran Blakey

What are the most common deficiencies that fortification addresses?

Some of the most common deficiencies are- the deficiency of Iodine, iron deficiency especially in kids and pregnant women, deficiency of vitamin A in kids, folate deficiency resulting in birth defects, vitamin D  and vitamin B12. [3]

This is the reason many countries across the world have mandatory fortification programmes in accordance with the WHO and FAO guidelines. The most commonly fortified foods are cereals with micronutrients, the addition of vitamin C in fruit juices, margarine with vitamin D or wheat flour with essential micronutrients. [1]

What are the different types of fortification strategies?

There are three main types of fortification strategies namely: 

  1. Dietary diversification- This is the most ideal and natural means of ensuring one increases the range of foods consumed to have a variety of micronutrients as a natural intake of diet.
  2. Biofortification – refers to the idea of breeding plants with increased micronutrients. It includes selective breeding, cultivating with enriched substrates as well as transgenic techniques.
  3. Industrial/Conventional fortification – classical method of introducing micronutrients during the processing of food. [4]

Is food fortification the same as supplementation?

In food fortification, a conventional food item is used to carry the added nutrients.  Supplements, on the other hand are products with specific unit doses of nutrients in the form of a capsule. Each of these capsules serve a specific quantity of the nutrient. 

Supplements can either be classified as “nutritional insurance” and “therapeutics”. Nutritional insurance is the major reason for consuming supplements in most countries. It is to make up for the inadequate diet in one’s daily life. For products that fall under this category, the amount of micronutrients provided via these supplements mirror the national recommended daily intakes. Whereas, using supplements for therapeutics have a tough time with regulations with many countries around the world. In the context of supplements being regarded as therapeutics, it is likely to be marketed as a “food product” attributing to prevent, cure and treat deficiencies. To define a product with these guidelines under food laws is prohibited especially in the EU and therefore it is quite a challenge to get approval based on these guidelines. [1]

Does fortified foods affect taste and appearance?

Yes, the inherent properties of food with respect to moisture, acidity and oxygen permeability can undergo change when a fortificant is added. These changes are strongly noticed especially during iron and zinc additions as these minerals affect the vitamin content of the food. [1] In addition to that iron fortification also resulted in the color and flavour changes for many food products. [6] In a study conducted in the Philippines, spiced vinegar was fortified with iron and based on consumer acceptability reports it was observed that products having a darker color due to iron fortification scored low on acceptance. [7]

What are the benefits of fortification?

For tackling food deficiencies, this approach is definitely a promising move. It is a stern strategy for developing and underdeveloped countries where malnutrition is a big challenge. It is a standardized approach and a definite part of food policies for many countries which ensures it is a safe practice. The overall cost of this approach is low. It majorly compensates for the nutrients that are either missing or lost from the food products during processing. [6]

What are the challenges and limitations of fortification?

It is important to choose the right carrier for the fortificant as some fortificants interact with some of the natural components of the food resulting in an inhibition and the bioavailability of the fortificant is reduced. The unpleasant changes in organoleptic properties of the food after fortification is still a major challenge. [3]

It is ideal that these fortified food products make it to the people in need especially people in the developing and underdeveloped nations, which is an under paved path as of now. Last but not the least, the right kind of facts need to reach the consumers in order to provide a more real picture of such products. [3]

Food Fortification in Canada   

Fortification of food has been practiced and encouraged in Canada since 1944. The regulated addition of vitamins and minerals falls under the Food and Drugs Act with The Food and Drugs Regulations (FDR). This has some stringent guidelines and has specific standards for the vitamins and minerals being added to food. Canada has seen a success story with a mandatory fortification of vitamin D as it is a persistent deficiency in many people here. Many of these fortified products were milk, milk powder, chocolate drink powders, fruit drinks, breakfast cereals, baby biscuits, and margarine. [5]

However, lately, the idea of discretionary or voluntary fortification is being practiced in Canada. Here, if a product does not receive clearance under FDR, it goes on the market under Natural Health Products Regulations (NHPR). The products under this regulation are called natural health products (NHPs). With further amendments to this policy, it became fairly easy for companies to market NHPs as discretionary fortified food products. This is a debatable platform as nutritionists think food companies exploit these flexibilities in regulations and add indiscriminate nutrients to foods even if such high levels are not needed for public consumption. On the other hand, food companies feel this flexibility provides them to explore and come up with food products that are not only delicious but healthy.  [5]

Fortified food products are definitely a good way forward to tackle deficiencies but they work even better in practice when good food policies are in place. 


About the Author

I am Anjali Patel, I come from India and completed my Masters in Food biotechnology from Wageningen University in the Netherlands before moving to Canada. Currently, I am working as an intern with Rainfed foods as an innovation and research associate. If not discussing food, you will see me reading books or chasing travel blogs to plan my next holiday


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References:

[1] Ottaway, P. B. (2008). Principles of food fortification and supplementation. In Food Fortification and Supplementation (pp. 1-10). Woodhead Publishing.

[2]  WHO/FAO (2006). Guidelines on food fortification with micronutrients. Geneva, Switzerland.

[3] Poniedzia?ek, B., Perkowska, K., & Rzymski, P. (2020). Food Fortification: What’s in It for the Malnourished World?. Vitamins and Minerals Biofortification of Edible Plants, 27-44.

[4] Kruger, J., Taylor, J. R., Ferruzzi, M. G., & Debelo, H. (2020). What is food?to?food fortification? A working definition and framework for evaluation of efficiency and implementation of best practices. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 19(6), 3618-3658.

[5] Christoforou, A., Norsen, S., & L’Abbé, M. (2018). Food Fortification in Canada. In Food Fortification in a Globalized World (pp. 341-348). Academic Press.

[6] Yadav, D. N., Bansal, S., Tushir, S., Kaur, J., & Sharma, K. (2020). Advantage of biofortification over fortification technologies. In Wheat and Barley Grain Biofortification (pp. 257-273). Woodhead Publishing.

[7] Lopez Barrera, E. C., Gaur, S., Andrade, J. E., Engeseth, N. J., Nielsen, C., & Helferich, W. G. (2018). Iron Fortification of Spiced Vinegar in the Philippines. Journal of food science, 83(10), 2602-2611.

Image References:

Food Fortification | Kieran Blakey

https://elemental.medium.com/the-elemental-guide-to-vitamins-a28cafc6791

Image 2 | ALEX STAROSELTSEV/SHUTTERSTOCK

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