In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, science writer Catherine Price asserts that it is the enrichment or fortification of processed foods with synthetic vitamins that allows (maybe even causes?) us to consume unhealthful diets. She asserts food marketers use synthetic vitamins to sell unhealthful products.
It s not quite clear whether she s complaining more about the addition of vitamins to foods or the fact that they are synthetic, i.e. made in a laboratory. Either way, her argument doesn t hold up to anyone with any knowledge about nutrition.
First, whether or not a vitamin is sourced from a plant or made in a lab, it is structurally the same, or it wouldn t work. While it is true, as Ms. Price says, that consuming the plant source gives us a more complex variety of chemicals, no one has actually proven that those chemicals are effective for disease prevention, as she states.
Second, while it is true that some types of food processing can deplete foods of some vitamins (as can home processing such as boiling), it is not true that adding those nutrients back in (enrichment) necessarily leads to consumption of a poor diet. Indeed, back in the days of World War II, many young men were deemed unfit to serve in the armed forces because of nutritional deficiencies long before processed foods became so widespread. Indeed, that realization about our youths was a major impetus for the development of the government s dietary guidance.
Further, adding vitamins that are not usually present to foods (fortification) such as adding vitamin D to milk or folate to processed grain products,is based on avoiding potential nutritional deficiencies rickets in the former, neural tube defects in the latter not on a whim of dairy or flour producers.
ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava had this to say: I find it strange that this author asserts that our food is of poor quality. Certainly, it is possible to choose a poor diet, but it is equally possible to choose one of high quality. The issue is not added vitamins, but rather the factors that affect the choices we make, such as family practices, financial status, and access to fruits and vegetables."
ACSH s Ariel Savransky adds, If the author of this op-ed was simply questioning the supplements industry, she might have a valid argument.
And let s not forget to weigh Price s opinion against that of ACSH friend Dr. David Seres, the head of nutritional medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital, and a world-class expert on vitamins and supplements. He has a decidedly different opinion. We will leave it to the reader who to listen to.