It's known as the sunshine vitamin because ultra-violet sunrays are used to make vitamin D in our skin. The vitamin is vital for bone health, normal muscle function and a healthy immune system.
Given we are now spending most of the day at home in an drive to contain Covid-19, there is an increased risk of developing vitamin D deficiency.
But long before the coronavirus pandemic, low levels of vitamin D have been an issue across the globe. According to Dr Michael F Holick, professor of medicine at Boston University, 40% of Australians are vitamin D deficient because they avoid the sun. To make vitamin D, he advises, you need to be outdoors between 10am and 3pm.
Consuming fortified foods can help to provide essential vitamin D and nutrients.
Foods that are fortified must be nutritious, but they must also be widely consumed, says Dr Marianne Walsh, nutrition manager at the National Dairy Council.
Dairy can be a suitable vehicle for fortification as it is widely consumed and is already nutrient-dense. For example, milk is often fortified with vitamin D as it helps with the absorption of calcium, and intake of vitamin D is quite low in the population.
“Low-fat milk, which is more commonly consumed by women, is often fortified with nutrients such as iron or folic acid, which are specifically important in this group. In these cases, fortification can add further nutritional value to an already nutritious product.”
However, she warned that adding calcium to dairy alternatives does not make them nutritionally equivalent to milk because milk has a much wider, natural matrix of nutrients. Making a healthy food choice is not always straightforward, so always look beyond the health claims and read the nutritional label.
“Fortified with vitamins and minerals.” That’s the health claim you are most likely to see on a range of products, from milk and grains to
breakfast cereals and yogurt. Almost three-quarters of all nutritional information references vitamins and minerals because, as we
know, they are vital to health.
But does that mean a fortified food is always a healthy food? Not at all, Dr Mary Flynn, chief specialist in public health nutrition at
the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, tells Feelgood.
A food that has added vitamins and minerals can sometimes mask other unhealthy ingredients, as a new study from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) shows.
‘Finding Healthier Breakfast Cereals and Yogurts in Ireland’ found that two commonly fortified foods — breakfast cereals and yogurts — were often very high in saturated fat, sugar and salt.
Of the 450 cereals and 570 yogurts studied, the FSAI found that just 13% of breakfast cereals and 24% of yogurts on sale in Ireland could be classified as a healthy choice.
Not a single granola of the 60 types studied met the ‘healthier choice’ criteria set out by the FSAI, Dr Flynn explained.
Under the authority’s guidelines, a single bowl of ‘healthier choice’ breakfast cereal contains 3g or less fat; 1.5g or less saturated fat; 6g or less sugar, and 3g or more fibre. However, some single servings of the granolas had up to 19g of fat, or the equivalent of almost two single portions of spreadable butter.
In terms of calories, fat, sugar and fibre content, an average single serving (45g) of granola was similar to three digestive-type biscuits (45g).
“I don’t think anybody would think that having three digestives crumbled up with milk was a good start to the day,” Dr Flynn said.
In some cases, yogurts were more like dessert. “You might as well have a half carton of cream,” Dr Flynn said. Only one third of all yogurts met the limits of 5g or 9g of sugar per 100g.
The results of the comprehensive snapshot of cereals and yogurts will act as a barometer to ensure that the food industry keeps its commitment to reformulate food products, that is cut calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar, over the coming years. But the study also highlights another important point: fortification adds value to food only when the food itself is a healthy choice.
That is why consumers should not just read the list of fortified ingredients on packaging, but look at the nutritional labelling too, says Dr Flynn.
Food fortification, regulated since 2007, focuses on vitamins and minerals that tend to be low in the general population, such as folic acid,
vitamin D, calcium and iron.
For instance, the addition of folic acid to certain foods has helped to reduce the number of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in babies.
However, because folic acid fortification is not mandatory in Ireland, unlike in 80 other countries worldwide, it is impossible to know just
how much any particular product offers, says Dr Flynn. There is another issue, as a Dublin City University study highlighted last year.
The levels of folic acid in food staples in Irish supermarkets continue to fall despite Ireland’s very high rate of neural tube defects.
After that study, Dr Mary Rose Sweeney urged policy makers to reconsider mandatory folic acid fortification.