NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 16, 2009

In recent years there's been a boom in the number of foods enhanced to have health benefits, and consumers' appetite for the trend has been large, says the Wall Street Journal.

For example:

  • In 2008, functional foods -- defined as foods believed to possess health benefits beyond the basic function of providing nutrients -- made up a $30.7 billion market, according to research firm Packaged Facts, and that figure is predicted to grow by 40 percent over the next five years.
  • Between 2006 and 2008, the number of omega-3 fortified products alone increased by 68 percent, reported Mintel's Global New Products Database.
  • The heart-healthy fatty acid found in fish turned up in well over 1,550 items, ranging from orange juice and cereal to bread and peanut butter.
  • Consumers seem to be eating it up: 83 percent have expressed interest in products with added health benefits, according to a 2008 International Food Information Council survey.

But can these fortified Frankenfoods deliver on the health promises they claim?  And can they compete with taking supplements or eating straight from the source, asks the Journal?

Fortified foods are nothing new:

  • Iodine was first added to salt in Michigan in 1924 in order to help reduce the prevalence of goiter, which had reached an alarming rate of 47 percent in that state; the measure worked so well that it led to the voluntary iodization of the product for the entire country.
  • It also paved the way for a cascade of similar, mandatory approaches; brain-and-skin degenerating pellagra was almost completely eradicated within about a decade after breads and grains were enriched with niacin, thiamin, riboflavin and iron in 1943.

In 1998:

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration made it mandatory to add folic acid to enriched grains such as breads and cereals with the goal of reducing neural-tube defects in babies.
  • Between then and 2004, the number of infants born with neural-tube defects went down by 25 percent, according a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-sponsored study, which concluded that folic acid fortification was at least partially responsible for the drop.

Nutritionally enhanced foods are essentially just a different way of getting some of the benefits of a vitamin supplement.  Studies show both do the job, says Sheldon Hendler, M.D., and co-author of "The Physician's Desk Reference for Nutritional Supplements."

Source: Sara Reistad-Long, "Fortified Foods: How Healthy Are They?" Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2009.

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