Fortified foods are an easy way to help us meet our nutrient needs and even prevent some health issues! They can be especially important for vegans.
However, there is some confusion and fear about fortified foods going around the internet.
Read on to learn what food fortification is, why it exists and how these foods fit into every day eating.
What is Fortification?
Fortification is adding nutrients, specifically vitamins and minerals, to a food that weren’t originally in that food.
As opposed to enrichment, which is when nutrients are added back into a food after being removed (for example, adding minerals back to refined grains after processing).
Why are Foods Fortified?
Historically, foods have been fortified to address nutrient deficiencies in certain populations.
For example, salt iodization is a fortification program in the United States that originated in the 1920s to address the high goiter prevalence.
Vitamin D fortification of cow milk started in the 1930s to address rickets (that’s right, cow milk isn’t naturally rich in vitamin D – it’s added!) while folic acid fortification of flour and grain products became widespread in 1998 to help prevent neural tube defects in developing fetuses.
Are Fortified Foods Healthy?
Apparently this is a hotly contested topic, and if you search the internet you’ll find all sorts of opinions and scary headlines (“Are Fortified Foods Poisoning Our Children?”).
While it totally depends on your definition of “healthy” (and I do believe it’s important that we all have personalized definitions of that as what is “healthy” for one person may not be for another), I believe that fortified foods can be a healthful and helpful part of our overall nutrition.
Food fortification programs in the United States take into consideration how much of the nutrient humans need and the goal is not to flood the food system with an excess of that nutrient, but to add a little boost for people who need it.
Most foods aren’t fortified. If you want to avoid fortified foods, it’s not that hard to do.
Eating extreme amounts of any food, whether it be kale, cake or fortified foods, isn’t going to be great for our bodies. And I’m not recommending that people overload on fortified foods. Variety is a core component of good nutrition!
If you’re concerned about how fortified foods fit into your diet, work with a registered dietitian for individualized guidance.
The Role of Fortified Foods in a Vegan Diet
Fortified foods can be particularly helpful for vegans.
You might be wondering, if veganism is so “healthy,” then why the need for fortified foods and supplements?
I don’t argue that eating 100% plant-based is “natural” or that “it’s easy to get all your nutrients from food alone.”
There is no need to prove that humans ever met all of the nutrient needs on plants alone.
My approach to veganism is that it’s what’s best for animals, and most of us can meet our nutrient needs pretty easily with vegan food, fortified foods and dietary supplements.
For example, it’s pretty difficult to meet the U.S. government’s calcium recommendations on vegan foods alone. Calcium-fortified foods are a significant source of calcium for vegans, and calcium supplements can help close gaps too.
Note that not all fortified plant foods and beverages are vegan. For example, calcium-fortified orange juice is usually also fortified with non-vegan vitamin D. If you see vitamin D3 or cholecalciferol on the label and it’s not specified as plant-based, you can assume it’s not vegan.
Staple Fortified Foods for my Vegan Family
Fortified Plant Milks
I look to fortified plant milks to help me and my family meet our calcium and vitamin D needs. Some plant milks are also fortified with vitamin B12.
Not all plant milks are fortified and the amounts vary, so be sure to check the Nutrition Facts panel for accurate information for each product.
One important note is that you need to vigorously shake the container of plant milk before pouring so that the calcium gets thoroughly mixed! When shaken, the calcium in plant milks is well absorbed.
Did you know that calcium sulfate is sometimes used in the tofu-making process and therefore adds calcium to the tofu?
While it’s not technically fortified in order to boost the calcium content, it’s more of a nutritional bonus of an ingredient added for a different purpose (in this case, the calcium sulfate is a coagulant).
See if any of the tofu at your market contains calcium (you can check the ingredients list and also glance at the Nutrition Facts panel).
Tofu is a staple in our house that we eat most days! Nooch tofu is a go-to around here.
Fortified Nutritional Yeast
A beloved staple in many vegan households, nutritional yeast aka nooch is often fortified with vitamin B12.
As with plant milks, not all nooch is fortified so be sure to check the label!
Also, if you’re a vegan who consumes fortified nooch regularly, it’s still a good idea to take a vitamin B12 supplement to ensure you’re getting enough!
Iron-Fortified Infant Cereal
My daughter is now a toddler and we still offer her iron-fortified cereal for breakfast (I make it with soy milk, nut butter and fruit) because it’s such an easy and reliable source of iron.
She also gets iron from legumes but it’s nice knowing she is getting a good dose at breakfast.
I cook and season with iodized salt at home to help us meet our iodine needs.
Did you know that the most reliable sources of iodine for vegans are iodized salt and dietary supplements? If you’re vegan and not consuming ½ teaspoon of iodized salt per day, you need to be taking an iodine supplement!
Learn more about how to meet your nutrient needs as a vegan by taking my vegan nutrition course! Take the guesswork out of nutrition by getting practical tips and evidence-based information in this all-on-one vegan nutrition course.