Children who dig into a bowl of fortified breakfast cereal may be getting too much of a good thing. A new report says that millions of children are ingesting potentially unhealthy amounts of vitamin A, zinc and niacin, with fortified breakfast cereals the leading source of the excessive intake because all three nutrients are added in amounts calculated for adults.
A new report shows that vitamin-enriched foods, originally developed to combat nutritional deficiencies, may actually be causing health problems. Most of us assume that when it comes to vitamins in food, more is better. But a recent study has found that eating too much food fortified with additional vitamins and nutrients can actually harm our health.
There are so many fortified foods these days and many parents are feeding them to their kids along with a daily multivitamin. While it’s important for kids to get their vitamins, a new study finds that kids may be getting too much, through both these vitamins and fortified foods like breakfast cereals.
This morning, Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report that cautions against the purchase of fortified foods, particularly for parents feeding such foods to children under the age of eight. “With some vitamins, there’s a limit to what’s healthy for you, but it’s very hard to ever reach that limit. With others, there’s really no limit,” explains Renee Sharp, research director for EWG and a co-author of the report. However, she says, “with some vitamins the window between what’s good for you and what’s potentially toxic is actually quite narrow”. For children, zinc, niacin and vitamin A are particularly problematic, as excessive doses can contribute to liver damage and skeletal abnormalities.
The study was conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental and health research and advocacy group. An Institute of Medicine study from January found that kids were consuming between 300 and 900 percent more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA). Among these vitamins were the same ones EWG determined kids were eating excessively some of the nutrients like vitamin A, zinc and niacin.
The organization looked at the nutrition labels of 1,556 breakfast cereals and 1,025 snack and energy bars. They found that 114 cereals included General Mills Total Raisin Bran and Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies had concerning levels of added nutrients.
Outdated nutritional labeling rules and misleading marketing by food manufacturers who use high fortification levels to make their products appear more nutritious fuel this potential risk, according to the report by the Environmental Working Group. Although the Food and Drug Administration is currently updating nutrition facts labels that appear on most food packages, none of its proposed changes address the issue of over-consumption of fortified micronutrients, or that the recommended percent daily values for nutrition content that appear on the labels are based on adults, says Renée Sharp, EWG’s director of research.
“Only a tiny, tiny percentage of cereal packages carry nutrition labels that list age-specific daily values. That’s misleading to parents and is contributing to the problem,” Sharp says.
Getting adequate amounts of all three nutrients is needed to maintain health and prevent disease, but the report says that routinely ingesting too much vitamin A can, over time, lead to health issues such as liver damage and skeletal abnormalities. . High zinc intakes can impair copper absorption and negatively affect red and white blood cells and immune function, and consuming too much niacin can cause short-term symptoms such as rash, nausea and vomiting, the report says.
When combining food intake and vitamin supplements, the report calculates that more than 10 million American children are getting too much vitamin A, more than 13 million get excessive too much zinc and nearly 5 million get too much niacin.
The evidence that millions of children are exceeding the safe upper levels for some nutrients “is fairly good and traceable to excessive marketing-driven fortification,” says Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University, who was not involved in the EWG report. “But right now we don’t have a lot of evidence that it is creating massive health problems. Rather, I would say it is unnecessary, not health-promoting, and in some individual cases may be causing toxic problems.”
To help reduce the amount of vitamin A, zinc and niacin that kids consume, EWG says parents should limit the fortified cereals and other foods kids eat to those that contain no more than 20% to 25% of the adult daily value for each of the nutrients.
Ultimately, if fortified foods are to continue filling the need that they were created for without overdosing the public on certain nutrients, Sharp says we may need something of a sea change. “It may be time to shift our thinking on vitamins from ‘make sure you get enough,’ to ‘make sure you get the right amount,'” she says.
There are four tips for parents who are concerned about their children’s vitamin intake:
1. Don’t buy cereals just because of the fortified vitamins.
“It’s often just a marketing gimmick. We don’t have deficiencies in these vitamins and minerals in north American diets.”
2. Do you need supplements?
There are risks associated with supplements and these may lead to side effects if combined with fortified foods.
3. Remember portion control.
If you exceed suggested portions then it might be easier to exceed suggested guidelines of vitamins and minerals.
4. Go to the original source.
The nutrient amounts and types found in the original whole foods provide optimal nutrition and less risk than those in processed foods that have been fortified.