There's more than food in some foods

Fortification can generate profits, but some worry it's too much of good thing

Food fortification craze worries some nutritionists

February 27, 2005|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The Kellogg brothers were always ahead of the pack when it came to nutrition.

A century ago, John Harvey Kellogg was a staunch vegetarian who ran a health-food sanitarium in Battle Creek, Mich. His younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg, founded the company bearing their name and in the 1930s was the first to introduce a cereal fortified with extra vitamins and minerals, called Pep. Their beliefs might have been affirmed by the fact that each brother lived to the age of 91.

But even they might not know what to make of this: As soon as next year, Kellogg Co. will begin adding an omega-3 fatty acid, typically found in fish, to its products, perhaps Pop Tarts or maybe the venerable corn flake.

Which products might be infused isn't yet known, but Kellogg and the Columbia biotech company that produces the "brain food" nutrient hope it does for breakfast products what it has done of late for baby formula.

Tinkering with food to make it more healthful has a long history in the United States, beginning as a way to fight disease during the Great Depression. But recent strides in bioscience and an increasingly health-conscious market of aging baby boomers have fostered some surprising pairings from companies seeking an edge on crowded grocery shelves.

Companies have begun to more aggressively label their products with whatever claim they can to ride the food fad of the moment.

According to the Nutrition Business Journal, fortified foods are expected to draw $33 billion in revenue this year, a fraction of the $500 billion packaged food and beverage industry. That's up from $19 billion in 2000 and more than triple the $10 billion that fortified foods generated 10 years ago.

The trend has taken many forms and includes some of the biggest names in the industry. Campbell Soup Co. adds calcium to canned spaghetti. Tropicana adds vitamin C to orange juice - for 240 percent of the recommended daily intake in every serving. A New Jersey company adds oxygen to its bottled water to differentiate it on shelves full of the stuff.

But the movement, heavily driven by marketing, worries some nutritionists. They fear that people are getting more nutrients than the body needs - too much of a good thing - and that jacked-up junk foods might contribute to the obesity problem in the United States and parts of Europe.

"When you have companies beginning to fortify foods that are not staple foods - you might get somebody that would eat 20 Mars bars or whatever it is - there's a danger," said Roger Shrimpton, secretary of the United Nations Systems Standing Committee on Nutrition in Geneva.

Chips, candy, soda

Certain baked potato chips carry a "smart spot" symbol that's supposed to signify them as healthful. Vitamin C, already abundant in the food supply, is added to all sorts of things, even candy, although the body needs just a small amount.

Soda manufacturers halved the sugar in their beverages to call them "low-carb" after the Atkins and South Beach diets took off. And Mars Inc. has a "health chocolate initiative" to promote the benefits of cocoa.

"What's happened in recent years is a lot of companies have fortified foods just to try to gain some marketing advantage," said Mark A. Kantor, an associate professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Why else would you fortify a beverage with vitamin C and make some prominent claim on the label?"

Food manufacturers originally added nutrients lost during processing and later to fight disease.

Iodine was added to salt in the 1920s to keep people from getting goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid gland that can cause breathing difficulties and dizziness. Milk was enhanced with vitamin D in the 1930s to combat rickets, which can lead to weakening of the bones.

Municipalities began adding fluoride to water supplies to prevent tooth decay in the 1940s and 1950s, although some people harbored suspicions that it was a government plot. And nine years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring the addition of folic acid - a vitamin thought to prevent anemia during pregnancy - to enriched grain products such as bread, flour and pasta.

But some fortified foods over the years have taken on a faddish allure among consumers and manufacturers.

"There's always an additive or subtraction of the moment," said Don Montuori, an editor for market research publisher Packaged Facts in Rockville. "It just speaks to the obsession - maybe that's too strong, the intense interest - consumers have in magic bullets, whether it's low carb, low fat, whole grain, anti-oxidant, you name it."

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