Monday, December 20, 2010

Fortified junk food to displace healthier fare?

There's no disputing the fact that Health Canada wants to allow food and product manufacturers to fortify foods with vitamins and minerals at their discretion.

It would have already done so except for the fact that Health Minister Leona Aglukkak balked at the last minute as she didn't want to be known as, "the junk food queen".

The worry among folks who care more about the health of Canadians than about food and product manufacturers' desire to sell junk food is that the fortification of junk food will make junk food all the more appealing and in turn provide a false sense of dietary security to the folks who are already eating it (potentially leading them to eat more) and may shift folks currently consuming healthier diets to choose less healthy fare.

The thing is, without this policy moving forward, it's difficult to say whether or not those worries are valid, but to lend a bit of weight to the argument that yes indeed they are comes a new paper from Sacco and Tarasuk of the University of Toronto.

What they set out to determine was what exactly the consumption patterns were for the folks consuming those foods set to be fortified by Health Canada's proposed policy.

Ultimately what they found was that 95% of the 34,383 folks they studied consumed at least one fortifiable food daily. More importantly, they found that for many teens between 14-18 years of age, fortifiable foods contributed nearly 50% of usual energy intake for many and averaged 35% for all.

They also found an inverse relationship between the consumption of fortifiable foods and actual healthy foods (whole ingredients).

What does this mean?

It means that were Health Canada to enact such a policy we'd all be a party to an experiment that has no particularly meritorious benefits (there's no indication fortification of foods will improve our health) and certainly has the potential to harm - especially given the huge amounts our growing teens will be consuming.

The potential to harm comes from the fact that we'll be exposing our population to nutrient levels which may well exceed recommended upper limits and moreover may shift consumption away from the very foods evidence-based nutrition has in fact proven to be beneficial to health.

Ultimately all it will do is pander to lowest common denominator nutrition by allowing food manufacturers to smear lipstick all over their dietary pigs, dressing them up for dates with trusting, nutritionally naive Canadians.

Sacco JE, & Tarasuk V (2010). Discretionary addition of vitamins and minerals to foods: implications for healthy eating. European journal of clinical nutrition PMID: 21119698

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  1. Another wicked good post! The bottom line is that people need to be educated and learn how to make good healthy choices. Then they won't be as susceptible to being duped by the food manufacturers' smoke screens.

  2. Well I'm glad a few tricks that make junk food seem better are being stifled. We really don't need any more misleading info to make our food choices more confusing.
    Question: If a company is permitted to fortify a food at its own discretion, is it possible that the company could fortify the food with a vitamin over a limit of what a person should be consuming in a day, making the food harmful (i.e. like taking too much of a vitamin supplement making your kidneys work overtime to filter the excess out of your body)?

  3. Absolutely Patti.

    Stay tuned to Sarah Schmidt's newspaper articles in the new year for just such an example

  4. Here in the U.S. the food industry seems to have a lot of discretion to add vitamins and minerals to food. In recent years, evidence has emerged that certain vitamin supplements can cause harm.

    Bjelakovic et al., Mortality in Randomized Trials of Antioxidant Supplements for Primary and Secondary Prevention. JAMA. 2007;297(8):842-857. doi: 10.1001/jama.297.8.842

    I certainly agree with you that this is a marketing gimmick the food industry will use to convince people that their products are healthier than they actually are.

    In the U.S. and Europe, certain foods are fortified with plant sterols (aka phytosterols). See my post on this: