The food fortification fallacy—Why nutrient-enriched foods won’t make you healthier

Countless studies show that we need higher levels of vitamins and minerals in order to prevent and reverse virtually every chronic disease. Despite this, mainstream medicine is always sure to trundle out some hack “expert” who insists you can get all the nutrients you need from your diet alone…

And that dietary supplements are a waste of time and money. Saying I disagree is an understatement.

For one, industrialized agriculture has stripped many nutrients from the soil that our fruits, vegetables, and grains used to contain. The solution to this, according to these “experts,” is fortified foods.

And you’ve seen plenty of these packaged products in the aisles of your grocery store, like:

• Grains and cereals spiked with B vitamins, zinc, and iron
• Milk infused with vitamin D
• Orange juice with “added” calcium
• Sugar (believe it or not) fortified with vitamin A1
• Yogurt with added fiber

The theory is that if you eat enough of these fortified foods, you’ll get all the nutrients you need—without taking supplements. But a new study shows that’s simply not the case, especially if you’re over age 50.

Even the healthiest diets fall short

Data from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging showed that even though vitamin-B fortified foods are common in Ireland, 14 percent of older adults were still deficient in B9 (also known as folate), and 13 percent were deficient in B12 (also known as cobalamin).2

Despite this, fewer than 4 percent of the study participants took B vitamin supplements.

This is a real shame because B vitamins (like many other nutrients) are critical for brain, nerve, and heart health—especially as you get older.

This study offers concrete evidence that obtaining adequate levels of B from diet alone—even if it’s “fortified”—is poppycock (to use a popular phrase from across the pond).

Of course, I’ve known that for decades. In fact, when I was working with the USDA in the mid-1980s, we measured the levels of newly discovered carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, etc.) in foods, and then analyzed the blood of healthy college students who ate foods containing those carotenoids.

We found that in order to get a measurable blood level of carotenoids from broccoli (a very healthy and nutritious food), a person had to eat 2.2 pounds each day.  

Not surprisingly, the study participants balked at eating that much broccoli every day. So my fellow researchers and I decided to sit down and eat 2.2 pounds of broccoli right in front of the study participants to convince them that it was indeed possible.

Let’s just say it didn’t go as planned.

So I can tell you from personal experience (in addition to solid scientific evidence), it’s not that easy to get all the nutrients you need from food alone.

This is particularly true for people who follow useless (yet popular) low-fat diets that completely discount all the high nutrient-content foods such as dairy, eggs, and meat.

Somehow, some doctors think if you just drink vitamin D-fortified, low-fat milk, you’ll magically absorb the nutrients you’re not otherwise getting from a supposedly “healthy,” low-fat diet. (In fact, other studies show it’s actually better for your health to consume full-fat dairy products, and not low-fat, or fat-free.)

When “fortifying” food does more harm than good

The main problem with food fortification is that the manufacturers simply don’t add enough key nutrients.

For example, you need a whole lot more daily B12 (around 12 micrograms) than what you’ll find in a few slices of fortified bread (which is around 0.02 micrograms per slice).

But while fortified foods may not do much to improve your nutrition status, they’re generally not going to harm you. Except in the case of iron- and calcium-fortified foods…

While I recommend getting these nutrients from foods, they should only come from foods that contain them naturally. (Think dairy, eggs, and meat, plus plenty of fruits and vegetables.) 

Excess calcium and iron increase your risk of heart disease, and high levels of iron in the blood are associated with cancer and other chronic diseases and infections.

In fact, 30 years ago, after my research with Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg on iron and cancer hit the New England Journal of Medicine and the International Journal of Epidemiology, officials stopped iron fortification in Finland (where we had research collaborators).

Instead, they actually started adding selenium, which has anti-cancer effects in the body. 

But, sadly, iron fortification is still prominent in the U.S.—especially in grains (which I recommend eating only sparingly).

Taking your nutrition to the next level

Ideally, eating nutrient-rich foods can keep you healthy, and prevent many health conditions.

But we also know that most people don’t follow optimal diets, and most of our foods no longer have optimal nutrient content. And, clearly, fortified foods can’t fix everything—or anything for that matter.

That’s where the power of dietary supplements comes in.

So the next time a health professional says you can get all of your required nutrients without taking dietary supplements, consider asking what kind of fantasyland he or she is living in!

And for the latest on the benefits of nutritional supplementation—as well as the proper, science-backed therapeutic dosages needed for optimal health—stay tuned right here to my Insiders’ Cures newsletter and my daily e-letter, the Daily Dispatch.



2“Voluntary fortification is ineffective to maintain the vitamin B12 and folate status of older Irish adults: evidence from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA).” Br J Nutr. 2018 Jul;120(1):111-120.