WASHINGTON — Foods with added vitamins and minerals may seem like a healthy option to supplement a diet, but it turns out that the added nutrients can be harmful to consumers — especially young children, senior citizens and pregnant women.
A new report from the Environmental Working Group studied breakfast cereals and snack bars — two of the food categories that are frequently fortified — and found that more than 140 of them are over-fortified to the point of causing harm to consumers.
Nearly half of American kids age eight and younger consume potentially harmful amounts of vitamin A, zinc and niacin because of excessive food fortification.
Outdated nutritional labeling rules and food manufacturers’ misleading marketing tactics can lead children to consuming the potentially dangerous foods, the EWG research found.
“Heavily fortified foods may sound like a good thing, but it when it comes to children and pregnant women, excessive exposure to high nutrient levels could actually cause short or long-term health problems,” Renee Sharp, EWG’s research director and co-author of the report, said in a news release.
“Manufacturers use vitamin and mineral fortification to sell their products, adding amounts in excess of what people need and more than might be prudent for young children to consume.”
Risky cereals and snack bars
Researchers analyzed more than 1,550 cereals and 1,000 snack bars. They found 114 cereals fortified with 30 percent or more of the adult daily value for vitamin A, zinc and/or niacin. They include General Mills Total Raisin Bran, General Mills Wheaties Fuel, Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies and Kellogg’s Krave, among others.
The EWG identified 23 cereals that were excessively fortified and had the highest added doses.
When it came to snack bars, researchers found that 27 common brands were fortified with 50 percent or more of the adult daily value of at least one of the nutrients. The brands included Balance Bars, Kind bars and Marathon bars, among others.
View the entire list of excessively fortified snack bars on the EWG website.
While food packages that read “added vitamins” may seem like healthier options, they may not be, says said Ashley Koff, a registered dietitian and former advertising executive for kids’ cereals and snack bars.
“The marketing of nutrient fortification suggests that getting ‘more’ nutrients equals a ‘more nutritious’ food option, yet from a health standpoint we know that to be false,” Koff said in the release.
“Research consistently shows that the nutrient amounts and types found in whole foods provide optimal nutrition as well as least risk.”
The effects of excessive vitamins and minerals
The added vitamins and minerals can spell trouble for some groups.
High doses of vitamin A can cause toxic symptoms and lead to liver damage, skeletal abnormalities and hair loss, EWG researchers point out. Excessive levels of zinc can impair copper absorption, negatively affect red and white blood cells as well as impair immune function.
During pregnancy, taking too much vitamin A can lead to developmental abnormalities in the fetus.
Older adults with high vitamin A intake can have an increased risk of suffering from osteoporosis and hip fractures.
What can be done
The EWG has some suggestions to avoid eating foods with too many vitamins and nutrients.
Parents should be cautious. Adults should be careful about feeding their children products with more than 20 percent to 25 percent of the adult daily value for vitamin A, zinc or niacin.
Monitor what kids eat. Parents should monitor their children’s intake of vitamin A, zinc or niacin and other foods to ensure that kids do not get too much of the nutrients.
Learn about vitamin A. There are several forms of vitamin A. The danger of overexposure applies to preformed vitamin A. It does not apply to products with naturally occurring high levels of carotenoids, which are vitamin A precursors.
Read labels. Parents won’t know what kids are eating and if it has added vitamins if they aren’t paying attention to what’s on the nutrition labels of foods.