I find it interesting how many health articles refer to things like soy milk and orange juice as “sources of calcium.” Fortified foods might be one way to get calcium, but they are not natural sources and, for the following reasons, are probably not the best option for meeting your calcium RDAs.
Fortified Foods are Processed Foods
The first reason fortified foods are not the best source of calcium is because they are probably going to be processed foods. That means problems like GMOs, hexane, preservatives, and lots of extra refined sugar and sodium.
Often, fortified foods would have been a good source of calcium had they not been processed. For example, an orange contains about 5% of your RDA for calcium. When manufacturers make orange juice though, the process destroys the natural calcium and other nutrients, so they have to add the calcium back into it.
Fortified Foods Lack Micronutrients for Bone Health
Since fortified foods are processed foods, they often don’t have the micronutrients you’d find in a natural source of calcium, such as the vitamin K and magnesium which is found in dark leafy greens.
Without these supporting nutrients, the calcium can’t be absorbed well by the body. Food manufacturers have woken up to this, which is why you sometimes see entire multivitamin packages on ingredients. For example, the Omega 3 soy milk made by Silk (which is owned by kings of vegan junk food Dean Foods) is loaded with 11 vitamins and minerals. If you are only going to eat junk food, I guess this could help you stay healthier.
But there is a good reason why health experts always say “food first.” Just look at how the United States Preventive Services Task Forcechanged its stance on calcium supplements for postmenopausal women when they found a link between calcium supplements and heart disease. The calcium was getting absorbed into the bloodstream but without vitamin K2 to take it where it needs to go, the calcium just hardened in the arteries. Read more about vitamin K2 and calcium absorption here.
Fortified Foods are Unreliable
If you want to rely on fortified foods as your source of calcium, you will have to choose your foods very carefully. There is so much variation in the amount and type of calcium in fortified foods that you will probably go crazy trying to keep track of it.
In a comparison of plant milks, the calcium amount ranged from as little as 2% to as high as 45%. The range can be seen in other processed foods too. For example, 4 slices of Lightlight ham has 0% of calcium whereas the Lightlife bologna delivers 25% of the RDA.
Fortified foods also use a huge range of supplements to fortify their foods, such as:
- Calcium carbonate
- Calcium phosphate
- Tricalcium phosphate
Some of these types are much better absorbed by the body than others. For example, kombu has some micronutrients which help the absorption and use of calcium, such as magnesium. Calcium phosphate is considered to be more absorbable than calcium carbonate, but the latter is more common in calcium fortified foods because it is cheaper.
Are you really going to keep track of how much calcium and what type is in all the foods you eat? Probably not, which means you could be falling short of your calcium RDA and not even realize it.
Ideally, you should get your calcium from natural sources, like cruciferous greens (Read: bioavailable vegan sources of calcium). But, if you aren’t eating these foods daily, then fortified foods can help you get towards your RDAs. I would rather take a supplement than rely on fortified foods though. With the supplement, you know exactly how much calcium you are getting and in what form, unlike fortified foods which vary so drastically.
If you opt for a vegan calcium supplement, I’d advise getting one which has cofactors like vitamin K2, vitamin D, and magnesium. This helps ensure your body is actually absorbing and using the calcium from the supplement. Jarrow makes a pretty good vegan supplement called Bone Up (note they have two version: vegan and non-veg). You can also check out our recommendations for vegan bone health supplements here.
Want to learn more about calcium on the vegan diet? Read:
- What is calcium and why do we need it?
- How do vegans get calcium? (infographic)
- Bioavailable vegan sources of calcium
- Vitamin K2 for bone health
- Soy milk comparison chart
- Calcium and heart disease