The next time you sit down to a bowl of Total or Special K or any of those vitamin pills in flake form, ponder how all those nutritious compounds got into those cereals.
They surely don’t grow that way.
Total, for example, not only is made from whole wheat, brown rice and sugar, but it also has 100 percent of the daily value of vitamins A, C, E and all the B complexes, plus percentages of vitamin D, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and copper. Pretty heavy!
Putting some vitamins and minerals into cereal has always been a part of the process. Federal law requires all finished cereal and other grain products to have at least the same amount of nutrients found in the original grains.
But packing extra nutritional oomph into those tiny chips takes a little extra engineering.
Though individual companies differ somewhat in equipment and method, most flaked products start with a solution of water, sweeteners, salt and finely milled grain.
Many of the vitamins and minerals lost during the processing of the grain are then restored, says Martha Stone, professor of food science at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins. This solution is pressure cooked, often with steam, and the resulting “dough” is flattened by a huge press equipped with one-ton rollers.
For flakes, the dough sometimes is machine-formed into tiny balls, like spoonfuls of cookie dough, only much smaller. These are smashed into flakes and are immediately toasted for about a minute at temperatures above 550 degrees. That gives the flakes their crisp and crinkly texture.
For a vitamin/mineral-enriched cereal, such as Total or Special K, some of the excess nutrients can be added at the early stage of the dough in appropriate amounts from powder concentrates or liquids. But heat destroys or inactivates riboflavin and vitamin C, for example, so those ingredients need to be added to cereals after the flakes have been toasted.
The most common process is to spray the flakes with finely powdered vitamins while they are still slightly moist, just after toasting. For the most part, these added nutrients are the same kind that get inserted into capsules or compressed into vitamin pills.
Cereal-makers go to a lot of trouble to make their products tasty and appealing, not only to children but to adults as well. Adults are the main buyers of Kellogg’s All Bran, for instance, which has 10 grams of dietary fiber per serving (Total has 2).
On the other hand, sugar - added to the dough in the form of sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup or to the end product in a glaze or coating - is a very common additive to cereals directed to youngsters. Some have as much as 12 or 14 grams of sugar per serving (Total has 5). That’s a little extra something that parents may not want their offspring to have.
Is that bowl of vitamin-enriched cereal worth the price?
One can save money and get the same amount of fiber and basic nutrients - albeit less flavor - by crumbling a piece of toasted bread in a bowl and adding milk. For more vitamins and minerals, daily multiple vitamins (about a nickel apiece) are still cheaper than a -cup serving of Total for 27 cents.
In any case, these are still vitamin/mineral supplements that are not coming from natural sources. Questions have been raised whether they are absorbed into the system as well as naturally occurring nutrients from vegetables, fruits and dairy products.
For some “gulp-and-go eaters” breakfast cereal may be the best source of vitamins and minerals, so supplemented cereals may be advisable, says Cecilia P. Fileti, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
But no matter what vitamins it is fortified with, a supplemented cereal should not be the only source of nutrients. It cannot replace eating a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the day, which supply not only essential vitamins and minerals but several kinds of fiber and a host of other valuable nutrients as well.