The nutritional miracle of enrichment may fade in the pursuit of clean label.

Sometimes a relatively simple question opens the door to a much more complex concern. In this case, it’s a concern that has long troubled me, as it should every other food professional who cares about the nutritional quality of the foods our industry offers to consumers.

“Why would a dough conditioner contain enriched flour?” someone asked me. I put on my regulatory hat and replied that the answer is simple. If the supplier sells that ingredient in the US and Canada, then Canadian regulations require that flour used in Canada for baking bread as well as the carrier for a dough conditioner be enriched. The same is not true in the US. You are only required to use enriched flour if you are manufacturing white bread, buns and rolls as defined by the federal Standards of Identity for bakery products.

That question, however, caught me off guard and caused me to pause.

The questioner, who works for a bakery co-op, indicated that more than half of the bakeries it represents do not use enriched flour. My first thought was, “Are you kidding?”

It’s my understanding that the choice to forego enriched flour is prompted by a desire to simplify the ingredient statement on the package label. Without all those enrichment compounds, it gets a lot shorter … and cleaner. Granted, many consumers don’t want to see ingredients they don’t know or understand listed in the ingredient legend. They reason that the fewer the number of such materials, the “cleaner” the product is to eat. The greater the number of ingredients listed, the more “processed” the food is. And they believe that to be a bad thing.

This should not be the case with enrichment. It’s my opinion — shared by many in the nutrition community — that the clean-label trend goes awry when it affects the health and nutrition of the American public.

I personally worry about the consequences of decisions that are not based in fact or sound science. I worry about the effect on public health and undoing years of nutrition enhancement that has been accomplished with enrichment. What are the consequences of eliminating the line on the ingredient legend that reads, “ferrous sulfate, niacin, thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2) and folic acid?”

Let’s review the history of enrichment, hailed as one of the big successes of the twentieth century and a true public health miracle. In 1938, the American Medical Association endorsed addition of nutrients to foods to improve public health. At that time, the American diet relied heavily on refined flours. Bakers got the message, and by the end of 1942, approximately 70 to 80% of flour and white bread produced in the US was voluntarily enriched. World War II’s War Food Order No. 1 mandated enrichment of flour and white bread and went into effect January 1943.

By 1949, pellagra death rates in the US Southern States dropped to 0.5 per 100,000, down from 10.5 in 1933. For those unaware of pellagra, it is a disease caused by a ­deficiency of niacin in the diet, characterized by skin changes, severe nerve dysfunction, mental symptoms and diarrhea. Another disease that has been reduced or basically eliminated by enrichment of baked goods is beriberi. This is a disease of the peripheral nerves caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1, characterized by pain in and paralysis of the extremities, and severe emaciation or swelling of the body. Two horrible diseases that plagued mankind for centuries were basically erradicated by enrichment of grain-based foods.

Folic acid is a more recent success story. In the years after 1996 when this nutrient became part of enriched grain-based foods, the US saw a 26% decline in neural-tube birth defects. Getting folic acid into the diets of women before they become pregnant was the key. This year, the Food and Drug Administration approved addition of folic acid to corn masa, the base ingredient of tortillas.

What if these enrichment ingredients are eliminated from our food supply? Could your child or grandchild be born with spina bifida? Could pellagra and beriberi find resurgence? Will we look back and wish we had made a different decision on the definition of clean label? How about one based of nutrition science and not the avoidance of unpronounceable names? Rational thinking needs to prevail so the past doesn’t become our future.

On another matter, a change in my baking industry career means that this is my lastBaking & Snackeditorial column. I thank you for reading these for the past nine years. It has been an honor and a privilege to share my experience, insights and opinions with each of you. Thanks for listening!

Editors’ note: And we thank you, too, Theresa.