There’s been an explosion in foods fortified with vitamins and minerals. They’re called “functional foods,” and Americans spend billions of dollars a year on them. Your milk is fortified with Vitamin D; your OJ has so many added vitamins its container has more letters in the alphabet than your child’s school books, and your cereal claims to help you lose weight and reduce your risk of a heart attack and stroke. Feeling guilty about eating junk food? Even ice-pops, chocolate pudding, and sugary drinks these days have added vitamins and minerals. It’s hard to find a product that doesn’t contain some healthy-sounding additive.
But are these foods worth buying and consuming? The answer isn’t all that simple. “I’m concerned about it, because it’s a way of getting us to eat things that may not be completely healthy for us,” says Dr. Marc Siegel of New York University Hospital in New York City. “A lot of these products have additives that in and of themselves are good, [such as] vitamins. But what about the overall product? Do they have too many sugars in them [or] caffeine? A lot of these products are not that healthy.”
So is a cereal containing yogurt bits healthier than one without them? Not according to nutritionists. Basically, this is a marketing tease. You’re persuaded to buy a sugary product, because you think it is healthier than similar cereals. And what about omega-3 fatty acids that have been added to everything from waffles to peanut butter? Doctors say additional omega-3 fatty acids found aren’t harmful. But they say that we shouldn’t substitute these types of “functional foods” for ones that naturally contain omega-3 fatty acids, such salmon, sardines or mackerel. (It is recommended that you eat three servings of fish containing omega-3 a week.)
Here’s another fortified food: yogurt with active cultures. Manufacturers’ labels claim that these yogurts, such as Activia, actually help keep your digestive track healthy. “Our gastrointestinal tracts are filled with bacteria: some bad and some good,” says Joy Bauer TODAY’s nutritionist. “Probiotics is an umbrella term referring to substances that help promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. Research has shown that certain probiotics can be helpful when you have stomach issues like diarrhea, constipation, or irritable bowel syndrome.” Bauer says that Dannon, which makes Activia, did research showing that people who consumed four to 12 ounces of the yogurt every day showed a slight increase in transit time (that means food traveled a bit more quickly through their gut). “Thus,” she says, “if you have gastrointestinal issues and enjoy the taste of yogurt — it may be worth a shot. However, more independent research needs to be done.”
And then there is a whole list of the heart-healthy and brain-enhancing foods. All sound like we might as well buy them over less fortified products. But do these they really work? “We’re giving a lot of attention to Alzheimer’s and we’re all worried about cancer,” says Siegel. “So as soon as we hear [about] something that may ward off cancer, we want it. But we have to be very careful, because these things have not been studied scientifically, and we must rely on true scientific research to tell us what’s good and what can really help us and what dose can really help”
Currently, doctors say not enough evidence exists to say whether fortified foods can replace foods naturally containing necessary vitamins and minerals. In other words, eating a cereal containing a plethora of vitamins does not equate to eating fruits, vegetables, legumes, or lean meats. These whole foods offer other nutritional benefits. And “functional foods” do not replace taking a multi-vitamin. Bauer also cautions about adding functional foods to our diet and increasing our total daily calories. If you plan on buying fortified foods, you may need to make some changes to your diet. Instead of adding more foods to your diet, replace some.
The Grocery Manufactures Food Products Association, an industry group, defended the functional phenomenon by saying: “Many ingredients added to food have substantial health benefits for consumers. Providing consumers with well-substantiated claims about food’s functional benefits can play an important role in promoting public health.”
Janice Lieberman’s Bottom Line: Evaluate your diet. Make sure you are getting the right nutrients from the best sources. Supplement with healthy products not sugar-filled products, but with healthy additives. Speak to your doctor or nutritionist, if you need a healthy eating plan.
Janice Lieberman is the “Today” show’s consumer correspondent. She joined NBC News as a consumer reporter in 1999. She is author of “Tricks of the Trade: A Consumer Survival Guide.” She is a graduate of Rutgers University.