Thursday, July 7, 2011

Enriched foods

We always think of enriched foods as being good for us. How could adding vitamins not be good, right? Except that there's been a lot of people (mostly doctors and scientists) lately who are questioning what, exactly, goes on in the enriching process.
First of all, there's the fact that most enriched foods, like white flour, need to be enriched because they are so lacking in nutrients that they are nutritionally non-existent. What's ridiculous about this is that they're lacking nutritional value because they've been processed and refined down to the point that all of the good stuff has been taken out of them. During WWII the U.S. government required flour mills to start enriching flour because of the lack of nutritional value. (White flour comes from the endosperm of the wheat grain, which means that the hull and the germ or seed have been taken out. The seed is where most of the nutrients are actually contained, hence the reason "whole wheat" is good for you. It has all the parts, including the good ones.) How ridiculous and inefficient is it when taking out all the good parts, and then adding some of them back in to a lesser degree is actually worthwhile and profitable? Do we really want to reward such inconsistencies in the system? Because I don't think it's worthwhile or profitable for the consumers, just the companies. (See my references here and here. I'm sorry, I didn't have time to poke around and find better sources.)
The other part of this equation is with bioavailability, or how much of something your body can actually use. For example, it's silly to have more than 100% of your daily need for vitamin C because it's water soluble and will just flush right out of your system. So the supplements that tout their 1000% of vitamin C just make very expensive pee. Similarly, most of the enriched nutrients in foods aren't there in a way that can be actually used. That synthetic vitamin D that's added to milk? It's usually D2, which hasn't been shown to have any health benefits and might actually have some downsides. What we produce when in the sun is really D3. (I looked, but had a hard time finding scholarly articles that dealt with anything other than D3, which should say something about how useless D2 is. However, I did find this article saying that synthetic D3 in organic milk is useless when the cows are exposed to sunlight. You might not be able to get to it except on a University computer, though, since it's through a website the library subscribes to.) There is a synthetic version of this, but it's not used in most enriched products or supplements. (And I tend to side with those who are skeptical about these things, because they're the ones NOT trying to sell something.) Still think Wonderbread is a good choice? Or fortified sugary kids' cereals? I know a lot of people think, "Well, at least they're getting some vitamins with all that sugar." They're not.
The other truly horrifying example that I can come up with right now is iron. If you care to watch this video, you'll see iron filings pulled out of cereal. (He covered the label, but it's easy enough to figure out that he used Total.) Umm, I'm neither a scientist nor a doctor, but even I know that eating iron filings isn't good for my body. It makes you wonder, what else is in these foods? And why on earth would this be legal? Michael Pollan famously made the point that finding real foods is getting more and more difficult each year due to the prevalence of tasty "food-like products". When you start actually looking into these foods, what he said makes more and more sense. Here's another video that doesn't talk about enrichment, but which makes it very, very clear that a lot of the stuff we buy from supermarkets (including foods that need to be enriched) are not actually food.
It isn't just adult and children's food, though, that gets this kind of treatment. Melamine (a substance that mimics protein and has been used to "fortify" foods, despite the fact that it's toxic) has been found in baby food all over the world, including the U.S. (The FDA has said that "trace amounts are safe"--but once again, it seems like allowing even trace amounts of toxins in baby food is a bad idea. Seriously. Toxics in baby food, and the FDA says they're safe, even though they've killed several children that we know of. Is it any wonder I plan to breastfeed my kids when I have them?
Almost as bad, melamine has also been found in a number of pet foods. A lot of veterinarians are now urging pet owners not to feed their pets any dry dog food, and I've read several books/articles saying to avoid even wet dog food if possible. I've still been giving our animals pet foods, but I'm more liberal now with giving out people-food treats like fat off our meat and fish leftovers. The 2007 incident involving melamine in pet food killed over 4100 dogs. The next time it happens (there's always a next time, with companies trying to maximize profit) I don't want either of our pets to be in those statistics. And who's to say that long-term exposure to a toxin won't have other harmful effects that we don't realize is from toxicity? Like cancer? My last dog died of cancer, wasting away for months before we put her down. I don't ever want to see an animal go through that again.

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