From Fortified to Functional: What's in Your Food?

As a registered dietitian, I am often asked by my clients, “What should I look for on a food label?”  The most obvious answer is read the list of ingredients and make sure foods are as close to the way they are found in nature.  Sometimes there are vitamins and minerals added to foods, and now we are seeing a new class of added ingredients classified as “functional.”

The Origin of Fortified Foods
Have you ever noticed the label on the table salt says “iodized?”  Do you know what that means?  Until I went to graduate school, I had no idea.  Goiters, which are an enlarged thyroid gland caused by iodine deficiency, have plagued humans for centuries.

It was not until the 1920s that doctors discovered that by adding iodide to table and cooking salts – it was an effective mechanism for increasing iodine consumption and preventing goiters.  In 1924, Morton was the first company to produce and distribute iodized salt commercially.  Fortification has been a great way to help prevent vitamin and mineral deficiency illnesses and diseases, in an inexpensive manner which is safe.

Get Your Vitamins
Niacin was added to goods containing flour in the 1930s as a way to prevent a vitamin deficiency called pellagra.  It is known as the four Ds: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia and death. 
Research collected by the March of Dimes led to folate/folic acid fortification to prevent neural tube defects in infants.  Thiamin and riboflavin are added back into grain-based products.  Municipalities add fluoride to water and there are several varieties of bottled water that are fluoridated.

Vitamin D has been added to milk for decades and now research is showing we need even more.  Eggland’s Best claims higher levels of vitamins E, B12, D and omega-3s in their eggs.

Functional Ingredients – Different than Superfoods
In the last decade, we have heard about super foods, like broccoli, blueberries, grapes, pomegranate, almonds, spinach and many exotic fruits like acai, noni and mangosteen.

In addition to vitamins and minerals, what these foods have in common, is that their unique pigmentation contains polyphenols and phytochemicals which have antioxidant properties.  Consumption of these substances in foods may help to prevent certain diseases and ailments (cancer, heart disease, blindness, etc.), but taking concentrated doses in supplements does not make up for lack of exercise or poor food choices!

We all know that calcium is the mineral that is important for bone health.  Osteoporosis is a problem, and inadequate calcium intake is a major culprit.  Milk has been the most commonly recognized source of calcium – after supplements – despite food sources like sardines and dark leafy greens.  Calcium has been added to foods like orange, apple and grape juices, soy beverages, breakfast cereals and some breads.

My favorite “f” word.  We need to be eating close to 30 grams of fiber a day, but the typical American diet contains less than 10 grams each day.

Fiber helps to reduce cholesterol, provide satiety and aids in digestion to help “keep things moving.”  Some fruits, vegetables, grains, cereals, breads and even pasta can all be a good sources of fiber.

After being nagged by my children for a “sweet” cereal in the supermarket, I gave them the task of reading all the nutrition facts panels on the boxes of cereal… if they found one with at least 3 grams of fiber, they could have it.  At that time, they couldn’t find one that they liked.  I certainly have favorites among each of the major cereal companies.

I tried whole wheat pasta with my family, only to find many of them unpalatable to my kids (and plenty of other parents complain about the same thing to me).  Luckily Barilla Plus resembles “white” pasta and the Ronzoni Garden Delight serve as vehicles for getting more fiber into my family.

Remember: Taste will drive consumption.  Yoplait has FiberOne yogurt with fiber and Welch’s has a variety of grape juices with fiber.  You may see the words “inulin” or “chicory root” in the ingredient list.

The word “sterols” sounds similar to steroid, but I can assure you, they are quite different!  Plant sterols are naturally occurring components in plants, which mimic a cholesterol molecule, and can block the absorption of cholesterol in humans.

Decreasing dietary cholesterol absorption, is one way a person can lower their blood cholesterol levels.  Sterols started to emerge in the U.S. food supply in vegetable oil spreads like Smart Balance and Promise.  There is even an FDA-approved health claim on foods containing phytosterols.

Ingredient companies have worked with food manufacturers to get sterols into foods like milk, cheese, pasta, breads, and more!  Vitalicious makes muffin tops and brownies with phytosterols.   Corazonas, which means “heart” in Spanish, believes in providing you the “freedom to snack” and be good to your heart in their tortilla chips, potato chips and snack bars which are proven to help lower your cholesterol.

It certainly adds “food for thought” when it comes to brands and options for the foods you choose to eat.  I have been choosing many functional ingredients for myself and my family for years.  Be open to more ways to sneak important nutrients into your dietary intake. Your body might just thank you!

Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, FACSM is a doctorally trained registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, TV personality and expert consultant in disease prevention, wellness and healthy living. She is the author of "Living Skinny in Fat Genes: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great." She hosted TLC's groundbreaking series "Honey We're Killing the Kids!" Become a fan of Felicia on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or visit her website