COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Fortifying common foods with calcium will not single-handedly eliminate calcium deficiency among America's teenage girls, new research suggests.

In a study of the eating habits of 112 adolescent girls who did not regularly drink milk, scientists found that fortifying processed meats or fruit juices with calcium would bring only about two out of five teenage girls into compliance with the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for calcium of 1200 milligrams.

"Our results show that girls who aren't consuming enough calcium aren't consuming a lot of processed meat or fruit juice either," said Gordon Wardlaw, associate professor of medical dietetics at Ohio State University and co-author of the study. "Thus, these items are not reliable ways to deliver calcium to teenage girls."

The National Institutes of Health recently recommended that teenage girls get 1500 milligrams of calcium per day. Public health surveys, however, show that, on average, adolescent girls get only 600 to 700 milligrams of calcium each day -- about half of the recommendation.

Study results show that fortifying flour with 1200 to 1600 milligrams of calcium per cup would bring more than 90 percent of teenage girls into compliance with the RDA for calcium. However, this approach, too, has problems.

"If you put that much in, you're going to push the calcium intakes of milk-drinkers way over the edge," Wardlaw said. Excess calcium in the diet is associated with the development of kidney stones in susceptible people, he said.

Adequate calcium intake, especially during the teenage years, is crucial for building and maintaining strong, healthy bones, Wardlaw said.

"Researchers would love to have young girls eat a good diet and maintain good bone status throughout their lives, as part of a plan to reduce the risk of suffering a hip or spine fracture later in life," he said. "An added advantage of this would be that society wouldn't have to bear the attendant cost of treating these maladies. But that's not happening. Given the way things are going currently, these girls are a public health catastrophe waiting to happen."

Wardlaw conducted this research with Ohio State graduate student S.S. Shirvani. He presented the pair's results at last month's meeting of the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology in Atlanta.

For their study, Wardlaw and Shirvani examined the total food intake of calcium-deficient adolescent girls over two weekdays and one weekend day. Using this information as a gauge of the typical teenage girl's diet, they then calculated how calcium-fortified processed meats, fruit juices and flour would affect the calcium intake of teenage girls who are calcium-deficient.

The researchers found that fortifying processed meats with 1500 milligrams of calcium per ounce would bring only 42 percent of teenage girls into compliance with the RDA for calcium. Further, they found that fortifying juice or punch with 1200 milligrams of calcium per cup would have even less impressive results -- 37 percent and 39 percent compliance, respectively.

Fortifying flour with 1200 milligrams of calcium per cup would bring 88 percent of teenage girls into RDA compliance, the researchers found. Last, they found that fortifying flour with 1600 milligrams of calcium per cup would bring virtually all teenage girls into compliance.

"Fortifying flour at the 1200 or 1600 milligram level would bring all girls up to standards, but it would push intakes way too high for other segments of the population," Wardlaw said.

The problem of calcium deficiency among adolescent girls is an admittedly troublesome and frustrating one, Wardlaw said. But, he added, it's one that should be solved.

"Right now, when an elderly woman suffers a hip or spine fracture, she often turns to Medicare to handle it," Wardlaw said. "However, when we start to balance the federal budget, there's likely going to be less money available to treat elderly patients. As taxpayers and as a society, we need to prevent as much of this ill health as we can. We don't have endless resources for treatment."

Wardlaw believes that greater availability of calcium-fortified food products, an aggressive nutrition education campaign and greater parental involvement are all potential solutions to the problem of calcium deficiency among adolescent girls. However, he said, solving the problem won't be easy.

"The danger of a nutrition education campaign is that the message will fall on the ears of people who are already very health-conscious," he said. "Plus, many parents aren't going to care about the message. They're more worried about violence, drugs and guns that kids may confront. As taxpayers and health planners, we can't just let this ride on parents' shoulders. We're going to have to come up with something more ingenious."

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Contact: Gordon Wardlaw, (614) 292-8142

Written by Kelly McConaghy Kershner, (614) 292-8308