Fortified Foods

Food fortification has now become an important issue although some manufacturers of packaged food articles have been adding nutrients for decades, like iodine added to salt to protect consumers against goitre.


In 2016, after the National Summit on Fortification of Foods, the Food Fortification Resource Centre was established. On its recommendations, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) made it mandatory for all manufacturers who voluntarily add nutrients to their food items, to affix the fortified logo on their packages.


Fortification is the addition of nutrients such as vitamins to packaged food articles. The purpose is to enhance the nutritional content to make sure that those who consume such items easily get additional vitamins and possible deficiencies are minimized.


But, has any one asked if vegetarians would like non-vegetarian substances to enrich the products?


As per government recommendations, salt can be fortified with iron and iodine. Iron, folic acid and Vitamin B can be added to wheat flour and rice; and Vitamins A and D to milk and oil.


There is absolutely no guarantee that ALL the micronutrients or premixes used for food fortification will ALWAYS be ethically acceptable to vegetarians. When asked by BWC, almost all manufacturers did not reply. The one that did reply said their premixes were “synthetic”. But, lab produced ingredients are not necessarily 100% veg. On saying so, the manufacturer did not reply BWC.


BWC therefore wrote to FSSAI citing two examples: that bovine haemoglobin concentrate could be used as a heme-iron fortificant in wheat flour, rice and salt; and, the folic acid added to rice, atta or maida, could be derived from animal liver.


This resulted in FSSAI immediately issuing directions (31 May 2017) restricting the use of heme-iron as a source of iron used as a fortificant, which is of course good. But there was no mention of restrictions on any other animal ingredients.


Since fortifiers can be of animal or non-animal origin, it makes BWC wonder if the manufacturers who affix the green symbol on packaged articles will even take the trouble to find out the origin of the added nutrients, and if they turn out to be non-veg, will they affix the brown/red symbol on say wheat flour or salt. Let us not forget that these symbols are self-certification by manufacturers!


Irrespective of whether the nutrient added is of animal or non-animal origin, the F symbol in blue to be affixed on all fortified food articles will only indicate that the product has been fortified, with which nutrient, and its quantity. No way will consumers be absolutely certain if the fortifier used is actually veg or non-veg.


The only glimmer of hope left for those who do not want to take a chance in consuming every day use products that might contain animal ingredients, is that the government notification has not till now made fortification mandatory although it lays down guidelines and states quantities. It is up to manufacturers to fortify, or not fortify, their products. This lets us decide whether or not to buy fortified items.

For our own benefit, we must make it a habit to read ingredient labels because of the increasing use of additives (many of which could be of animal origin) in packaged foods. When unsure, it is best not buy or consume.


Who benefits?


Interestingly, fortification ensures an annual market of over Rs 3,000 crore to just 5 multinationals. FSSAI has authorised 15 companies to supply micronutrients to the government making it a lucrative business. That’s one aspect of fortification, the other two important aspects are:


As mentioned in detail above, fortification can turn foods non-veg.


Fortification has not reduced malnutrition according to a nutritionist from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences who says it can have just the opposite effect because natural foods contain protective substances such a phytochemicals and polyunsaturated fat that are adversely affected by the process of blending micronutrients. This is the same reason why Amul has refused fortification of their milk saying they favour natural fortification to address vitamin efficiency and that the fortification recommended is synthetic or artificial which would be dangerous for health.


Despite these misgivings, government schemes have gone ahead with fortification. The following information has been sourced from the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, FSSAI and the National Dairy Development Board:


Milk: Fortification with Vitamins A and D @ Rs 60 per tonne was introduced in 2017 and has been implemented in all states.


Wheat: Fortification with Vitamin B12, Iron, Folic Acid @ Rs 20 per tonne was introduced in 2018 and has been implemented in 12 states.


Edible Oil: Fortification with Vitamins A and D @ Rs 100 per tonne was introduced in 2018 and has been implemented in all states.


Rice: Fortification with Vitamin B12, Iron and Folic Acid @ Rs 500 per tonne was introduced in 2019 and was been implemented in 15 states.


As of 2021 Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtrsa, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh had started distribution of fortified rice. It was stated that availability fo fortified rice kernels had gone up from 7,000 tonnes to 50,000 tonnes because rice mills with blending capacity had risen from 50 to 3,900 in the last few years.


However, 18 experts in a paper entitled “When the Cure might become a Malady” argued that the programme ignores the central role of a balanced and diverse diet in addressing a variety of nutritional problems. The authors stated that the new nutrient recommendations of the Indian Council of Medical Research and National Institute of Nutrition show that a diverse natural diet is adequate to meet the normal micronutrient needs of the population. Therefore, fortification of rice with iron without diversifying the diet will make very little difference, if at all.


Furthermore, the fortification of rice which will cost the public exchequer about Rs 2,600 crore annually represented an avoidable and wasteful expenditure with no palpable benefits; on the contrary, it carried the risk of harm. Moreover, the prevalence of chronic anaemia which had been elaborated as one of the main reasons for the programme had been magnified with the use of inappropriate haemoglobin cut-offs to diagnose the malady in children and pregnant women creating a perception of prevalence of worsening anaemia but did not reflect the true nutritional status of the population.

Articles against Fortification appear in the newspapers frequently. It is being strongly opposed by many eminent persons including Dr Anura Kurpad - Professor at St John’s Medical College, Professor Harshpal S Sachdev - a senior consultant at Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science & Research, Dr Veena Shatrugna - Ex-Dy Director of National Institute of Nutrition, and Dr Vandana Prasad - Founder-Secretary of Public Health Resource Network.

In May 2022 a fact-finding team of civil society activists consisting of representatives of Right to Food Campaign, ASHA-Kisan Swaraj and Greenpeace India, upon visiting 5 villages in Jharkhand, stated that beneficiaries of fortified rice complained of gastritis, diarrhoea and nausea after consuming “plastic-rice”. This is what fortification was called by them and discovered that women were picking and throwing away the fortified rice kernels even in Anganwadis and schools. The team also found serious violations, lacunas and flaws in the manner in which the programme was being implemented including FSSAI and government’s own regulations on packaging and labelling of fortified foods. In short, they strongly rejected rice fortification and felt that the government was unnecessarily causing a major disruption to people’s major source of nutrition i.e. rice. The Report of the Fact Finding visit to Jharkhand, on Rice Fortification in Government Food Schemes can be read here.


Source of Fortifiers


Since the Government is going ahead with fortification of foods and it seems that by 2024 it will be mandatory to fortify rice, BWC approached FSSAI requesting that all fortificants, micronutrients, premixes etc. be “only from plant sources” as stated for Iron and Vitamin D under their Standards for Fortification. (Reference FSSAI directions dated 31 May 2017 stated above.)

BWC was concerned about other fortificants that would be utilised, particularly Vitamin A, Folic Acid, Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 & B12 that could very well be of animal origin. Lab-produced or synthesised fortificants can still be of animal origin because the source of every thing is animal, plant or mineral.

We hope in the interest of acceptance of food fortification by India’s veg consumers who on religious or ethical grounds do not consume even a small amount of non-veg as an ingredient, FSSAI makes it mandatory for all fortificants to be of non-animal origin, i.e. only from plant or mineral sources.

Page last updated on 14/05/22