Delivering Appropriate Levels of Micronutrients in Food
Speakers at a Thursday, June 28, session titled “Helping Consumers Meet DRIs for Nutrients of Concern with Processed Foods” underscored the complexity of formulating products that give consumers the levels of micronutrients they need—without over delivering, i.e., causing them to consume levels that have the potential to harm them.
Presenter Regan Bailey, a nutritional epidemiologist with the National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements, opened the discussion with an apt reference from 16th century physician Paracelsus, who famously stated, “The dose is the poison.”
Consumers’ intake of micronutrients is affected by whether or not they are consuming supplements, Bailey reported, and that information must be taken into consideration when making decisions about the need for food fortification. Regular supplement users represent a significant segment of the population—about half of adults and a third of children.
She explained that a higher percentage of consumers who use dietary supplements meet the EAR (estimated average requirement) for vitamins and minerals. “Dietary supplements add a large amount of nutrients,” she said. “They have to be looked at when you’re considering who’s getting too little and who’s getting too much.”
Supplements can be “wild cards,” said presenter Johanna Dwyer of Tufts University. “They complicate things in terms of analysis. They drive some intakes over the UL (tolerable upper intake level. And they rarely move people up who are at the lowest levels [of micronutrient intake].”
“You can’t tell who is going to take them, and if the right people are going to take them,” she observed. Dwyer also touched upon the potential for health problems linked to overconsumption of micronutrients. She cited the example of folic acid and a link that one researcher has proposed between colon cancer and folic acid fortification. While links such as these are far from established, it is clear that potential examples of micronutrient overconsumption must be carefully monitored, Dwyer said.
Dwyer focused some of her discussion on the “nutrients of concern” identified by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee and the issues surrounding attempts to address these concerns, zeroing in on potassium in particular.
“That to me is a real problem,” she said. Potassium is a nutrient of concern because many Americans do not get enough of it, but it is a bitter mineral, so fortifying foods or beverages with it presents a major technical challenge to product developers.
Dwyer also noted that foods that have been fortified don’t always reach the intended target audience of at-risk consumers. For example, teen girls and older women who would benefit from consuming fortified milk tend not to consume it.
She urged product developers to avoid fortifying foods that do not have a healthy nutritional halo. “Consumer backlash will be considerable if you’re fortifying unhealthy foods,” she said.
Dwyer concluded her presentation by urging product developers to take a responsible approach to fortification—targeting population subgroups that would most benefit from it, fortifying appropriate foods, and working to address technical challenges. “Fortification and enrichment really have helped, but it’s up to you to overcome the challenges that remain,” she said.
“If we are going to modify foods, we need to modify in ways that will resonate with consumers,” agreed the session’s final presenter Marianne Smith Edge of the International Food Information Council (IFIC).
Smith Edge shared IFIC research data that suggests that consumers are open to consuming foods that have been formulated to help them achieve better health. IFIC research has shown that three out of four people agree that foods with added benefits can have a meaningful impact on their health, she said.
Also according to IFIC data, 62% of consumers report that they’ve considered the fiber content of food prior to making a purchase decision and 53% have looked at vitamin and mineral content. And, of particular interest in the context of the presentation, 28% have considered whether or not a food contains potassium when considering a purchase.
Smith Edge cited data from a 2011 IFIC survey that shows that about a third of Americans believe that fortification does have a moderate or great impact on health. In addition, about four out of five Americans purchase a variety of foods and beverages specifically because of a benefit delivered by fortification, with milk, juice, eggs, yogurt, and ready-to-eat cereal leading that list.