It’s the 21st century, so shouldn’t we know how to grow food with enough nutrients to sustain our health? What is the underlying problem with our agriculture system that causes fortification—the practice of enriching staple foods with essential vitamins and minerals to improve their nutritional content—to be mandated by our government?
Take “iodized” salt, for example. Before table salt was fortified in the 1920s, iodine deficiency was a common issue, affecting thyroid health, which can lead to mental development issues in babies. Iodine can be found in cranberries, sea vegetables and seafood, but instead of encouraging us to eat more seaweed, the government decided to have iodine added to salt.
We assume that those who can’t afford to buy healthy food need fortification. However, a 2009 Oxford-Brookes University study showed that the poorest of the poor from the mid-Victorian era of England (around 1870) were surprisingly healthy. “Analysis of the mid-Victorian period in the U.K. reveals that life expectancy at age 5 was as good or better than exists today, and the incidence of degenerative disease was 10 percent of ours.” This was before food fortification. What has happened to our food supply since the 19th century that makes food fortification necessary?
The triggering event of the modern push for food fortification was World War II. The nutritional status of Americans was being questioned as a result of the poor health of young men enlisting for service. Thus, in a scant 70 years, our diets had stopped supplying adequate nutrition. The fortification of staple foods began, and by the end of 1942, 75 percent of white bread was fortified with thiamin, niacin, iron and riboflavin. Other breads and flour soon followed. Around this time, the Food and Drug Administration made a decision that it would not require mandatory fortification for any food product; this policy is still in place.
Food fortification policies provide some health benefit, but are outdated and too limited in scope and reach. Consuming whole, natural foods—not processed breads and cereals—appears to be a way to resolve nutritional issues that necessitate food fortification… but is it? Most of us eat meats, fruits, vegetables and grains that are mass-produced. Due to price and volume pressures, many farmers use expedient means to fertilize the fields to maximize and optimize crop yield. On average, the agricultural industry returns four to six nutrients (such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium) to our soils. But how many nutrients are actually lost through the action of wind, rain and plant growth? The answer: many more than four to six.
For example, agricultural fertilizers only sometimes include magnesium, but certain genetically modified organism (GMO) crops can grow well, even in magnesium-deficient soils. It’s less expensive to use GMO seeds compared to fertilizing fields with magnesium and other nutrients that GMO seeds help the farmer do without. What is the result? Our foods—and consequently our bodies—don’t have enough magnesium. Approximately 90 percent of American children are either deficient or insufficient in magnesium, but magnesium isn’t on the government’s fortification short list.
One critical sign of magnesium deficiency is increased inflammation. And inflammation is now recognized as part of the chronic cascade in modern diseases such as cardiovascular disease, autism, diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s. Coincidence? Now take out the word “magnesium” and replace it with many other vital nutrients. See the problem?
Eggs, liver, whey protein and dark green leafy vegetables provide the best ways to obtain vital nutrients such as thiamin, niacin, iron and riboflavin; dark green leafy vegetables also contain folate, which is the most recent addition (1998) to the short list of recommended fortifying nutrients. Folate deficiency can have severe consequences during pregnancy, including neural tube defects.
Eating organically grown foods does help, though it’s still an imperfect solution. While organic foods are probably higher in nutrient content than their conventional counterparts, they may still be deficient in some essential nutrients, especially the minerals that have been rinsed from the soils over eons such as magnesium, strontium and molybdenum.
My recommendation is to supplement good eating habits with cod liver oil rich in omega-3s, vitamin A and vitamin D (5 grams/day); sea salt (throw away your regular table salt and use sea salt exclusively, which also doubles as a mineral supplement); magnesium supplements; and potassium supplements. A little-appreciated fact is that our bodies require more potassium than sodium, but few are achieving this. The recommended daily allowance for sodium is 2.3 grams, while potassium is 4.5 grams.
As part of my education I attended the Harvard School of Public Health. The take-home lesson from that study was “the dose makes the poison.” For you reading today, this means supplement cautiously, not overzealously, and you will achieve and maintain good health.