February 10, 2013

Are Fortified Foods Good for You?

Manufacturers are building up products with omega-3s, vitamins, fiber, and more. Are all these extra nutrients too good to be true?

How Much DHA and Iron You Really Need

Your energy bar is bolstered with iron, your sports drink is spiked with calcium, your bread has added fiber, and your oatmeal has all of the above. Before you give yourself props for your diet, consider this: If you also pop a daily multi, you could be OD'ing on certain nutrients. In some cases, food fortification makes sense; for example, if you're lactose intolerant, OJ with calcium and vitamin D is a lifesaver for your bones. Other times "it's just an attempt to make a poor nutritional choice look like a good one," says Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston. There's little FDA regulation of so-called functional foods unless they bear a health claim. As long as a product packs more than 20 percent of your daily dose of a vitamin or mineral, the label can call it an "excellent source" of that nutrient -- whether you need it or not. Plus, companies are required to list nutrition facts only for substances with FDA daily values, such as fiber. That leaves you in the dark on others, including omega-3s and folic acid. Here, get the facts about seven common ingredients that are popping up in foods and decide whether they deserve a spot in your shopping cart.

DHA Docosahexaenoic acid is one of the omega-3s in fatty fish. The other is EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid. DHA helps cells communicate with one another and your nervous system, while EPA fights inflammation and keeps your heart healthy. "If you're eating only foods with DHA, you're not reaping all the benefits you'd get from fish or even a fish-oil supplement, which contain both types," says Evelyn Tribole, RD, author of The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet. DHA-fortified foods, which include cheese, eggs, milk, peanut butter, and tortillas, also aren't significant sources. Two tablespoons of enriched peanut butter provides 32 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids -- small potatoes compared with the more than 1,000 milligrams in a three-ounce salmon fillet. You would have to eat more than 62 tablespoons to get the amount that's in one serving of fish.
Bottom line: Don't rely on pricey DHA-fortified foods. Instead, spend your money at the fish counter, on salmon, oysters, and trout. If you're not a seafood fan, take a fish-oil supplement that provides at least 220 milligrams each of EPA and DHA.

Iron Listen up, meat eaters: It's not just vegetarians who suffer from iron deficiency, which can cause headaches, sap your endurance, and leave you exhausted. Sure, you get some iron from red meat, but a three-ounce serving of beef supplies only about 13 percent of your daily dose. Two other key sources, chicken liver and oysters, aren't dietary staples for most of us. Plus, your body can't use all the iron in many foods. Beans, for example, contain a compound called phytic acid that reduces absorption by as much as 50 percent.
Bottom line: One in five women falls short of the recommended 18 milli­grams daily. So go for a variety of iron-enriched foods: A cup of rice, a cup of spaghetti, a pita pocket, and a veggie burger gives you 46 percent of your day's quota.

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