Enriched foods are foods that have had vitamins, minerals, or other nutritional elements added to them after processing. These nutritional elements are present naturally in the foods, but processing removes or reduces them. The process of enriching the food restores the original nutritional content. By contrast, fortified foods have had additional nutrients added that do not occur naturally in the food. Sugary cereals often are advertised as being fortified, but while the added vitamins are nutritionally sound, these foods still are not recommended due to the high sugar level.
There is some debate over whether enriched foods are as nutritionally beneficial as unprocessed foods. Many nutritionists believe that processed foods that have been enriched do not provide the same kind of nutritional benefit as the food in its natural form. Vitamins and minerals that are added after processing may not be as easily absorbed by the body, making them less beneficial. From a nutritional standpoint, others believe there is little difference between the two.
Common nutrients added to foods include vitamins, protein, iron, and potassium. Vitamin-enriched foods include milk, breads, and other foods made from processed flour. A variety of vitamins is often added to these foods, including vitamins D, A, C, and the family of B vitamins. Breads and pastas typically are iron-enriched foods because much of the nutritional value of the grain is removed to create white flour. Whole-grain products are more likely to maintain their original nutritional composition and are not as likely to be enriched, or they are enriched with fewer elements.
Potassium is another important nutrient that is often added to processed foods. Orange juice and other fruit juices are often potassium-enriched. For those with high blood pressure, potassium can be vital as sometimes hypertension is due to low potassium intake. Protein-enriched foods can be important for those on vegetarian diets, helping to keep the protein intake within the proper range. Foods such as soy products, especially soy-based meat substitutes, are often protein-enriched.
In general, higher quality nutrients can be obtained from food that is as close to its natural state as possible. Vitamins and other nutrients from fresh fruits and vegetables – as well as whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans – are considered by many to be easier for the body to absorb. They also contain fiber and other micronutrients that are not present in processed versions of the same food. While enriched foods have a place in any balanced diet, most nutritionists agree that fresh foods are preferable.