Too Much of a Good Thing

You want your kids to get the nutrients they need to grow up healthy and happy. 

The best way is to feed them plenty of fruits and vegetables and a diet rich in whole foods. But what about all the processed products that are fortified with lots of added vitamins and minerals? Should parents seek them out because of all of the extra nutrients they offer? Or might there be a hidden downside? These are the questions that EWG explores in its latest report, “How Much Is Too Much?” 

Let me cut to the chase. Food producers often fortify foods with large amounts of vitamins and minerals to make their products appear more nutritious so they will sell better. “What’s the problem with that?” you might ask. There are two problems, it turns out. First, those nutritional claims are powerful marketing tools that trick many consumers into thinking that an unhealthful food is much more nourishing than it is. Second, the explosion in fortified foods, combined with flawed government policies, means that many children are now consuming too much of certain vitamins and minerals – and this could be bad for them.  

Government and academic scientists report that nowadays, millions of American children younger than 8 get too much vitamin A, zinc and niacin from fortified foods and supplements. 

We all know that getting enough vitamins and minerals is important for overall health. But fewer people realize that ingesting too much of certain nutrients can be harmful – and some vitamins have a relatively narrow range between the amount we need for optimal health and the amount that could cause health problems. 

Children are particularly vulnerable to overdosing on these vitamins and minerals because their smaller bodies are less able to tolerate excessive amounts. For example, too much of some forms of vitamin A can lead to both short-term and long-lasting health effects, such as liver damage or skeletal problems. In older adults, high vitamin A intake has also been linked to hip fractures, and in pregnant women too much vitamin A can harm the fetus. 

EWG’s new report found that two types of products, cereals and snack bars, often contain added vitamin A, zinc and niacin (vitamin B3) in amounts much greater than young children need – and sometimes in amounts that the prestigious Institute of Medicine considers unsafe for children. (The Institute is a branch of the National Academy of Sciences.)

Sometimes food manufacturers add excessive amounts of a nutrient accidentally. In February,  Mars Foodservices recalled its Uncle Ben’s Infused Rice products after students and teachers in public schools in Texas, Illinois and North Dakota experienced burning, itching rashes, headaches and nausea 30-to-90 minutes after eating the rice. Mars Foodservices acknowledged in a statement that the illnesses might have been related to excessive amounts of niacin in its enriched rice.

So why are children getting too much of these nutrients? A big part of the problem is that the Food and Drug Administration’s percent Daily Values for vitamin A, zinc and niacin, which are printed on the Nutrition Facts labels on food packaging, are actually higher than the maximum safe amount for children calculated by the Institute of Medicine. That’s because the Daily Values are given for adults, not children, even on products aimed at and made for children. 

There are three other reasons for excessive nutrient consumption:

The FDA guidelines on voluntary food supplementation haven’t been updated in 34 years, so they don’t reflect current scientific evidence. 

Food companies use high fortification levels as marketing tools, attracting consumers looking for healthful food options for their families. 

The food serving sizes listed on cereals and many other products are unrealistically small, so children end up getting even more nutrients – from added sugars to added vitamins and minerals – than the label suggests. 

The bottom line: Until the FDA makes the Daily Values on nutrition labels reflect most recent science and requires food companies to feature child-specific Daily Values on foods children eat, EWG recommends that parents give their kids foods with no more than 20-to-25 percent of the adult Daily Value for vitamin A, zinc and niacin. Older adults and pregnant women should also keep a close eye on vitamin A-fortified foods in their diets, especially if they are taking a daily vitamin pill. 

And remember that the best source of vitamins and minerals is fresh produce. No one is going to get a toxic overdose of vitamins and minerals from pumpkin, spinach, whole grains or broccoli. 

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