Were it not for the vitamins added to our food, from cereals and grains to milk and orange juice, the famously unhealthy American diet would be more difficult to sustain — perhaps forcing us to eat healthier, fresher foods.
Maybe you've heard that the vitamins and minerals you need are already contained in food and therefore fortification is superfluous. This may have been true at one time, but today, eating habits established by the widespread consumption of synthetic vitamins has essentially made addicts of us all.
"In fact, for products like milk and flour, where fortification and enrichment have occurred for so long that they’ve become invisible, it would be almost irresponsible not to add synthetic vitamins. If food companies didn’t do so voluntarily, the government might have to require it, to make sure that we didn’t accidentally eat ourselves into nutritional deficiencies."
We needn't worry about Uncle Sam forcing us to eat our vitamins, however. Food manufacturers who want to ameliorate the health effects of the junk food they produce understand that fortifying industrialized sweets with vitamin A (or B, or C, etc.) is a very attractive sales point.
And therein lies the rub. Numerous studies have established that vitamins that appear naturally in foods are better absorbed by the body. While your orange juice may be fortified with vitamins A and D, those nutrients are fat-soluble, meaning your body won't absorb them if you just drink a glass of O.J.
One study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, found that nutrients in broccoli are absorbed seven times more efficiently as broccoli than as nutritional supplements in pill or powder form.
As real-foods advocate Nina Planck explains, the convention of processing foods, which began during the era of industrialization, contributes to three of the biggest health diseases today: heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
"I looked at saturated fat in particular. I looked at cholesterol in particular. I looked at red meat, which is accused of causing cancer. And then I looked at the substitutes for these traditional foods that we’ve now added to our diet: the industrial foods, soybean oil, corn oil, refined flour, refined sugar, trans-fats, which are artificial, manmade saturated fats and in each instance I found that these industrial foods were responsible for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease."
As Americans become more aware of their diet (Chipotle's rise is McDonald's fall), it's important to understand that not just junk food and nutrient-robbed processed foods are causing our skewed outlook with respect to diet and health. The so-called "health-food" movement itself is a response to our own complacency over industrialized methods of processing food. Synthetic nutrition is no nutrition at all if we continue to eat ourselves sick.