70 years and counting of enriched wheat
by Laurie Gorton
Enrichment of flour and bread celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Depending on whom you ask, enrichment began as a means to 1) restore nutrients lost through removal of bran and germ during milling of wheat flour, 2) reduce or eliminate deficiency diseases or 3) address public health concerns about birth defects. Not in question is that it adds to the ingredient list printed on packaging.
The current enrichment scheme mandates the supplementation of white bread and flour, pasta and rice with four B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folic acid) and iron. It makes calcium an optional addition.
Extensive nutritional surveys conducted by US federal agencies during the late 1930s as the country was coming out of the Great Depression revealed serious deficiencies in certain nutrients in the diets of broad population segments. This problem exacerbated difficulties with military readiness as the country prepared to enter World War II, and the federal government launched an officially sponsored, but voluntary, flour and bread enrichment program in 1941. Within a year, three-quarters of all white bread and family flour was enriched. In 1942, the US Army announced it would only purchase enriched flour. In 1943, enrichment of all bread was required as part of the War Food Administration’s Food Distribution Order and codified in War Food Order No. 1.
When the government lifted wartime measures in 1948, enrichment became voluntary again. The baking industry engaged in a lively debate about whether to continue enrichment, mandatory or not. The federal government maintained its position favoring voluntary enrichment, and the right to enact mandatory provisions was taken up by individual states.
In the US, the laws of 36 states and one territory require enrichment of flour and cereal grain products. The decision by FDA to mandate addition of folic acid to baked foods pre-empted the question of enrichment where it was not then mandated by the states. Many industry observers noted, however, that enrichment had already become the de facto standard for bread and buns because so many baked products move across state lines.
On Jan. 1, 1998, folic acid (also called folate, folacin and vitamin B9 ) became the most recent addition to mandatory enrichment requirements. An extensive campaign by the medical and nutritional communities supported its addition because science had long reported a direct relationship between folic acid deficiencies before and during pregnancy and the risk of birth defects such as cleft palates and neural tube defects (spina bifida and anencephaly).
Flour enrichment in the UK started during the early 1940s with supplementation of calcium and B vitamins. In 1953, the transition of Newfoundland from UK colony to Canadian province brought with it the region’s policy of mandatory enrichment of flour with iron, calcium and B vitamins. Canada made this a voluntary policy for the rest of the nation but changed to mandatory enrichment with B vitamins and iron in 1975.