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Is your child's breakfast cereal doing more harm than good?

Growing up, we were always told that cereal is part of a balanced breakfast.  Many of us still hold this belief and have passed it on to our own kids.  But what if this American breakfast staple isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?  Could giving our kids fortified cereals for breakfast be doing more harm than good?

According to a new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a health research and advocacy organization, millions of children could be consuming unhealthy amounts of vitamin A, zinc, and niacin because of fortified breakfast cereals.  These cereals, which have become synonymous with breakfast, are the main source of over-consumption of these three nutrients because they are added in amounts intended for adults, not kids.

Food fortification or enrichment is the process of adding vitamins and minerals to food.  This process came about when nationally recognized organizations, like the World Health Organization (WHO), recognized that there were billions of people worldwide who suffered from disease at the hand of nutrient deficiencies – particularly iodine, vitamin A and iron deficiencies. This can be due to main foods of a region lacking particular nutrients, soil insufficiencies of the region, or a general lack of variety in local diet. To combat the amount of people suffering from these deficiencies, and prevent large-scale diseases, fortification of foods became a national standard.   

This all seems generally beneficial to the global population, however the enrichment of foods has the potential of delivering toxic amounts of nutrients to people. We can see this in the particular case of children consuming fortified cereals daily.  

Some of the vitamins or minerals are added in amounts higher than the recommended daily value for adults.  Children are consuming these same foods, putting them at high risk of vitamin toxicity.  

Furthermore, nutrition labels are widely outdated and do not include recommended values for children, which can be extremely misleading for parents and contribute to toxicity problems.

Getting enough vitamins and minerals is needed to maintain health and prevent disease, but too much of a good thing can actually be bad.  For example, too much vitamin A can lead to liver damage and skeletal abnormalities. Too much zinc can impair copper absorption and can negatively affect immune function.   And too much niacin can cause rashes, nausea, and vomiting. 
 
Parents need to be careful with overconsumption, and limit the amount of fortified foods they give their kids. The EWG recommends limiting fortified cereal to less than a quarter of the amount recommended for adults.

There are limits to the benefits of food fortification. In many cases, the nutrients added to food in this process are synthetic.  

Nutrients can be toxic in some forms, while safe in the same doses in other forms.  Additionally, when nutrients are added back into a processed food, these nutrients do not always remain bioavailable as they would be in the original, whole food. One example would be skim milk.  In skim milk, the fat is removed and vitamin A and D are added back in to fortify the milk.  Interestingly, both vitamins A and D are fat soluble, so a person consuming skim milk may not be able to absorb enough of these vitamins because of the absence of fats.  

Try sticking to natural, unprocessed products.  This will ensure you and your kids are getting the vitamins you need, while avoiding the potential harm of enriched foods.  

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