Pumped-up fortified foods for healthy living

On a perfect diet you'd get folic acid from broccoli, omega-3 from walnuts and vitamin C from oranges.

But whose diet is perfect? Maybe you're allergic to tree nuts or orange juice upsets your stomach. As much as you've tried to choke down broccoli, you just don't like it. Are you doomed to live with a body that lacks these essential nutrients?

Not if food manufacturers have anything to do about.

Drink half a can of fruit punch-flavored Glaceau Vitamin Energy and you'll consume a day's worth of folic acid. Snack on a bag of Salba Smart tortilla chips and get 280 mg of heart-healthy omega-3. Pour a packet of Immune Fizz into your water bottle and you've got 2,000 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C.

Foods and beverages fortified with vitamins and minerals are becoming increasingly common with grocery store shelves virtually sagging under the weight of these pumped-up products.

The idea of fortified foods is hardly new. Wonder Bread has been putting calcium and folic acid in its bread for decades; ditto with milk boosted with vitamins A and D. Yet at the Food Manufacturer's Institute trade show in Chicago earlier this month, I couldn't turn down an aisle without bumping into new products that fall into this functional foods category.

Government agencies and trade groups don't yet track products in this group, but all agree it's a booming market. The functional foods game includes big players like Kraft (prebiotic fiber added to cottage cheese) and General Mills (healthy vision vegetable blend) to smaller firms like Fould's Inc. in Libertyville (fiber- enriched pasta) and Salba Smart of Denver (omega-3-added tortilla chips).

Bill Greer, director of communications for FMI, says the companies are giving consumers what they've been asking for.

"You see nutritional benefits promoted in so many products," Greer says. "Consumers are seeing the link between diet and health. More people are trying to live a lifestyle that promotes good health."

So if they're going to grab a bag of chips, they want it to do more than satisfy a snack craving. Some chips, such as Garden Harvest Toasted Chips from Nabisco or Flat Earth Baked Crisps, deliver a half serving of fruit or vegetables in a one-ounce helping.

If they're thirsty, they want to quench that thirst and up their antioxidant quotient for the day in the same gulp.

"Consumers are searching for that magic bullet, but are realizing that there is not one magic bullet, but many, maybe 40 products," says Phil Lempert, founder of Supermarket Guru.com and consultant to NBC's "Today Show."

The challenge lies in finding the right products for you. And reading product labels helps in that effort.

"You're the only one who can determine what your body needs," Lempert says. He says consumers can't simply trust the marketing words on the front of package, they must read the labels.

"For consumers that's a big issue; they have to turn the package around to see the proof of the claim."

For example, if you need more potassium in your diet, you need to understand the mineral's role in your diet and then read labels to find a product that contains the right balance.

Consumers are paying attention not only to what manufacturers are putting in foods, but what they're taking out. Increasingly more products are being made without refined grains and with whole grains, without refined sugars or high fructose corn syrup, and without trans fats.

"Functional foods are not going to go away," acknowledges Cheryl Bell, Midwest nutritionist with Meijer. "But as a dietitian, I endorse food first; get your nutrients from foods."

"Yes, you can get omega-3 from chips, and chips can have a place in your diet, but you can get omega-3s from fatty fish or a handful of walnuts.

"I could eat two ounces of chips, but will it be as satisfying as if I ate an apple?"

She said there's another downside to some of these functional foods: calories. While you get a day's worth of vitamin C from an energy drink, you're also guzzling down 200 calories. Eat a cup of red pepper slices and get double the dose of C in just 25 calories.

"I want my calories to count," Bell says.

By Deborah Pankey, Food Editor

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