An interview with renowned nutrition expert Dr. Senarath Mahamithawa
Considering the nutritional content of meals and maintaining a balanced diet can be a continuous challenge for busy individuals. Choosing to eat fortified foods, or incorporating fortified ingredients into your daily meal plans, can be a quick and easy way to optimize the nutritional value of your meals. Dr. Senarath Mahamithawa, Senior Administrator at the Ministry of Health in this interview, shines a light on the various health benefits of consuming fortified foods and wheat flour in particular.
Dr. Mahamithawa has over 30 years of experience in the field of nutrition and also currently serves as the ministry’s Director of Estate and Urban Health. He also serves as the convenor of the National Food Fortification Sub-committee.
Q: What are the health benefits of fortified wheat flour? How is fortified wheat flour different to normal wheat?
A: The wheat flour that we normally consume is very refined and the bulk of the bran is always removed. The bran is the most nutritious part of the wheat grain so most of its goodness is lost in the purification and milling process. Fortified wheat flour on the other hand retains as much natural nutrition as possible and additional minerals are also added.
Traditionally, many Sri Lankans are vegetarian or consume a significant amount of vegetables in their diets, they tend to consume lower quantities of meat and fish and this can result in them having iron and folic acid deficiencies. The Ministry of Health is constantly trying to find ways to add these vitamins and minerals to dietary staples. Rice and wheat flour are both consumed a great deal in Sri Lanka, so we are trying to encourage the fortification of both of these staple foods. We want people to consume these staples, not solely for the purpose of getting energy, but also as a means of obtaining their nutritional requirements.
Q: Tell us more about how fortified foods impact general growth and development and overall health?
A: We consider the nutrients that we add to foods as ingredients or fortificants and the actual food items themselves act like vehicles. The additional nutrients are carried throughout the body through the food items that they are added to. In Sri Lanka, when fortifying staple foods, we add iron and folic acid to them as these minerals meet the main nutritional requirements of the national population. Iron for instance is essential for the synthesis of hemoglobin, which is again essential for transporting oxygen around the body. An adequate flow of oxygen around the body is required for nearly every function of the body, it helps growth development, intellectual capacity, physical strength, thinking and concentration levels and much more. As a good supply of oxygen is so important to the body’s well-being and performance, iron is required in substantial quantities. Iron is also needed for other metabolic activities in the body such as enzyme production. Iron is not easily absorbed by the body, so you need to consume high quantities of the mineral for it to have an impact.
Q: Why is fortified wheat flour particularly good for growing children and pregnant women?
A: The fortification process significantly helps to provide children and pregnant mothers with the vitamins and minerals they need to thrive and stay healthy. Globally, wheat flour is increasingly being fortified using the latest technology, to ensure that national populations can benefit from the most nutritious food options available to them.
Q: What are your top tips for incorporating fortified flour into meal plans?
A: Once the main staple foods that you eat are fortified, you have a better chance of obtaining your daily nutritional iron and folic acid requirements. Instead of buying two types of flour, it’s easy to buy fortified flour for all of your meal preparations.
Q: Is it safe to have fortified foods for all of your main meals?
A: It’s generally okay to have fortified foods for all three meals. However, there is a recommended dietary allowance for any nutrient. It’s important to keep in mind that in the fortification process only one third of a nutrient’s RDA is added to the wheat flour, to leave room for additional nutrient intakes. Therefore, there is no danger of fortified wheat flour ever adding toxic levels of iron to your body.
Eating a well-balanced diet that is enriched with additional nutrients, is one of the easiest and most practical ways to stay fit and healthy. Combating any minor nutritional deficiencies through your diet will enable you to live a healthier life and will enable your body to function at an optimum. Having a diversified diet with the required amount of staple, vegetables, fruits, fish or meat is the ideal way to live a healthier life.