Too Much of a Good Thing or Good at All? Kids’ Cereal Overloaded With Vitamins Says EWG Report.

A new report issued by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) says nearly half of kids age eight or younger in the United States are consuming potentially harmful amounts of vitamin A, zinc and niacin from foods with added vitamins and minerals. The report also cautions that pregnant women and seniors are at risk for excessive consumption.

The report, released this week, has stimulated a swift response from manufacturers of cereals and snacks heavily invested in the practice of fortification. A spokesperson from Kellogg, a company mentioned in the report, released a statement that likely echoes the public position of many brands who fortify, “without fortification of foods such as ready-to-eat cereals, many children would not get enough vitamins and minerals in their diets”.

I don’t disagree that this is true as well I shouldn’t. A robust body of published science exists to demonstrate this point. However, this same data paints a more complicated and somewhat ironic picture of a society that over-consumes to the point of obesity and even after all those calories is still under-nourished. From what I see in the data, I question if we aren’t missing the bigger picture…is spraying on our nutrients really the best route to take? Could our time and money be better spent elsewhere, perhaps in improving education and access to whole foods…you know, the ones that are inherently full of vitamins and minerals?

Even researchers involved in the EWG report are quick to point out flaws in the nutritional framework used to base its conclusions. One such researcher, Louise Berner, PhD, states, “the EWG report is worrisome to me in several respects… the report fails to mention uncertainty surrounding the ‘tolerable upper intake level,’ or UL, the highest level of daily nutrient intake likely to pose no risk of harm. The UL is the cutoff the report uses when it makes such statements as ‘45% of 2- to 8-year-old children consume too much zinc’.” Researchers have widely noted that the UL values are too low for some nutrients, such as zinc, and the criteria, such as UL and Daily Values (DV) listed on nutrient labels are woefully due for re-assessment and updating.

Other factors playing against fortification include a lack of research around the bioavailabilty of fortificants, i.e., the ability of the body to absorb and correctly utilize these manufactured nutrients. Another tick against fortified vitamins and minerals is that they are highly processed ingredients and largely derived from GMO corn. These issues are not mentioned in the report.

The wide-spread use and acceptance of fortificants in food (they are even allowed in certified organic foods although they themselves are not organic) is because our country takes a public health approach to the issue. Avoiding nutrient deficiencies in our society is given higher priority than how the food is grown and processed.

Overall, I appreciate the issues presented in this report and especially the recommendations to, among other things; update nutrition labels to make them more useful to consumers, limit fortification as a marketing tool for manufacturers and ask manufacturers to be more thoughtful and conservative in their approach to fortification.

What I wish to see is a discussion and prioritization of the bigger picture. The reason fortification is a common practice in the United States is because we largely exist on processed, packaged foods that lack inherent nutrition. Our society not only lacks the knowledge of what a healthy, plant-based diet looks like, but the access to create it even if we did. Instead of debating and focusing on how to improve our fortification system, what if we instead used that energy to invest in education and access to fresh food?

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Image by EWG

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