In the 1990s food companies in the United States under direction of government policies to prevent folate deficiencies in the United States began enriching wheat and grain products with synthetic folic acid.
Now most if not all cereals and grain based products in the US have added vitamins and minerals to combat vitamin deficiencies.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
What follows is a discussion on the merits of food enrichment vs unaltered food sources.
Let’s begin by explaining the history of folate enrichment. It began in the early 1990s when neural tube defects were becoming an increasing problem in babies in the United States.
Neural tube defects occur because of a deficiency in folate before and during pregnancy. Since folate is important for brain and cognitive development in fetuses a lack of this crucial vitamin can cause many unwanted problems.
Thus the government stepped in and regulated the food industry to mandate food enrichment with essential vitamins and minerals.
On one hand it would make sense that the addition of vitamins and minerals to food would improve the health of the general public. It is like the sci-fi movie in which you take a pill and it gives you an entire meal in one go (almost but not quite the same).
However, if the food industry is adding synthetic nutrients what happens when our bodies cannot process those synthetic vitamins and minerals?
Take folic acid for example. In 60% of the population there is a genetic mutation referred to as MTHFR. The MTHFR gene provides instructions for making an enzyme called methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (now you know why they abbreviated it to MTHFR).
This enzyme plays a role in processing amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins.
Well, in many of us this mutated gene prevents the body from converting folic acid into folate – the form of vitamin B9 that our body needs. Methylated folic acid found in some supplements is folic acid that has been converted prior to consumption into a bioavailable form our body can use, thus skipping the conversion step before it enters our system.
See the down and dirty explanation in this video:
Perhaps then, it is better to get our nutrients from fresh fruits and vegetables that contain these important building blocks of life.
However, these days due to many environmental factors the soil that helps grow these vital fruits and vegetables is lacking many of the nutrients we count on to sustain us. Thus, perhaps the only option left to us is to supplement with fortified foods.
Perhaps not yet, but if the soil quality does not improve a future where the soil will no longer sustain us might be not too much of a leap.