ENRICHMENT & FORTIFICATION
Foods made with refined wheat flour play an important role in a healthy dietary pattern. The term ‘refined grains’ may make you think of cakes, cookies, and pies, but bread and cereals may also be made from refined grains and these can be valuable, nutrient-dense foods.
Fortification and enrichment of wheat flour means that Canadians are getting key nutrients that may be lacking in their diets.
Limiting grain intake may have an unintended effect. Folic acid fortification of refined wheat flour contributes to healthy pregnancies and reduces the incidence of neural tube defects (NTDs) in babies.
Enrichment & fortification of wheat flour
To understand enrichment and fortification of wheat flour, it’s important to understand how wheat flour is made.
To create wheat flour, you first have to mill or ‘refine’ the whole wheat kernels. This involves rolling or crushing the wheat into flakes and then grinding and sifting into the component parts of bran, germ and endosperm.
Different wheat flours are made from a ratio of these parts, and have different applications. In Canada, the most common are whole grain whole wheat, whole wheat flour and white enriched wheat flour.
The unintended consequence of separating out the components is that refined wheat flour contains fewer vitamins, minerals and less fibre than is found in wheat made from the entire grain kernel.
To help combat this loss, Canada, by law, requires all refined wheat to be enriched and fortified with key vitamins and minerals to prevent nutrient deficiencies and improve the nutrient quality of food for Canadians.
Originally, the enrichment of wheat flour simply replaced nutrients lost in the milling process, but today enriched flour is fortified with a higher amount of nutrients shown to provide specific health benefits.
What is enrichment?
According to Health Canada, refined wheat flour must be ‘enriched’ or improved with certain vitamins and minerals to a level equal to or higher than what is naturally found in whole grains. This is achieved by adding a vitamin powder to the flour during the milling process, ensuring the right amount of vitamins are added.
Refined wheat flour is fortified with thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), folic acid (B9), and iron. Vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, magnesium, and calcium may also be added, but this is voluntary.
You will find ‘refined’ wheat flour in the baking section of the grocery store labelled as ‘enriched all-purpose white flour,’ or see it as an ingredient listed as ‘enriched white flour’ in bakery products like bread, bagels and english muffins.
Although refined wheat flour is enriched with these added vitamins, it will still be lacking some nutrients naturally found in the whole kernel such as fibre, vitamin E, and magnesium.
What is fortification?
Fortification is the adding of nutrients to foods to provide consumers with sufficient amounts of certain nutrients in their diet in order to prevent deficiencies and improve the food’s nutrient quality.
Fortification began in the early 1900s to address diseases that were the result of malnutrition. For example, beri beri and blindness in segments of the population in Newfoundland and Labrador led to the mandatory addition of B vitamins, calcium, and iron to flour, and vitamin A to margarine, in the 1940s. The success of fortification has led to the elimination of diseases in our population. The iodization of salt in 1949 eliminated goiter in Canada and the addition of vitamin D to milk improved a widespread problem of childhood rickets.
“The mandatory enrichment of white flour with B vitamins, iron and folic acid is a cornerstone of Canada’s fortification program aimed at helping to prevent nutrient deficiencies and maintain or improve the nutritional quality of the food supply.”
In Canada, the Food and Drug Regulations (FDR) set the framework for fortification of foods to act as a public health intervention as well as to ensure the nutritional equivalence of substitute foods for special dietary purposes. For example, a meal replacement drink that needs to meet specific dietary intake requirements.
There are both mandatory and voluntary fortification programs in Canada. Some foods required by law to be fortified include: milk, margarine, apple, grape and pineapple juices, table salt and meal replacements.
What are refined grains?
‘Refined grains’ is a term used to refer to grains that are not whole, because they are missing one or more parts of the kernel (i.e., bran, germ, or endosperm).
For wheat, all-purpose flour is the most common example of a refined grain where some or all of the bran and germ have been removed in the milling process, leaving only the white endosperm.
The milling process removes some of the protein and many of the vitamins and minerals naturally found in wheat. To help counter this loss, Health Canada requires refined wheat flour to be enriched to add back some of the key nutrients lost during processing.
Which wheat flours are enriched and fortified?
Enriched wheat flour or all-purpose flour
As the name suggests, enriched wheat flour is indeed enriched. It is highly demanded in Canada and around the world for its versatility. This flour contains only the endosperm portion of the wheat kernel. Removing the bran and germ creates a light and silky flour that is perfect for breads, bagels and baked treats like cakes and croissants. Enriched wheat flour is also easier to bake with, stays fresher longer and has great non-baking applications (e.g., for thickening gravies and stews).
Whole wheat flour
Whole wheat flour is not enriched or fortified like all-purpose flour. In Canada, whole wheat flour is also not considered ‘whole grain’. Under Canadian regulations, up to 5% of the wheat kernel can be removed during the milling process of wheat. The portion of the kernel that is removed contains much of the germ and some of the bran. The purpose of removing some of the wheat kernel, especially the germ which contains much of the fat, is to reduce rancidity (a reaction of the fat in food when exposed to air that creates off flavours and odours) and prolong the shelf life of whole wheat flour. Whole wheat flour has a longer shelf life than whole grain flour, however, enriched wheat flour stays fresh longest. Whole wheat flour can be used in making fresh pasta, whole wheat breads and is a great substitute in home baking to increase the amount of fibre in recipes calling for all-purpose flour.
Whole grain whole wheat flour
Whole grain whole wheat flour is also not enriched or fortified. It is made from the entire kernel, meaning all three parts of the grain are intact and included in the flour in the proportions found in the whole kernel. Because of this, whole grain whole wheat flour is higher in many vitamins and minerals, especially fibre, zinc, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorous.
It’s important to note that while whole grain whole wheat flour contains the entire kernel, it has not been fortified with any additional nutrients and therefore is lower in certain vitamins and minerals, namely folic acid.
Whole grain whole wheat flour can also be used in recipes calling for all-purpose flour, but proportions may need to be adjusted.
How do wheat flours stack up nutritionally?
To help illustrate how foods made from different wheat flours can have slightly different nutritional values, the chart outlines the nutritional facts for one slice each of white (enriched white flour), whole wheat and whole grain wheat bread. You will notice that white bread is higher in folic acid, iron and B vitamins, while the whole wheat and whole grain breads are higher in fibre, magnesium, potassium, zinc and vitamin E.
Enrichment & fortification Is important
Enriched wheat flour adds value for children and pregnant women
Enriched refined wheat flour can play an important role in the diet of Canadians, especially children and pregnant women who need more carbohydrates in their diet and need these foods to be nutrient dense. For example, enriched pasta, bread, and cereal have iron and B vitamins added as well as folic acid. Grain foods are meaningful contributors of nutrient density in our diets in both children and adults, with particular emphasis on ready-to-eat cereals, breads, rolls, and tortillas.
The science supports both whole grain wheat and refined wheat products in a healthy diet as they contribute substantial nutrients for Canadians of all ages.
Pregnancy and folic acid fortification
Folic acid fortification of flour in Canada has greatly contributed to reducing the number of babies born with neural tube defects (NTD).
According to Health Canada and the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), all women of reproductive age should get 400 mcg of folic acid every day to get enough folic acid to help prevent some birth defects because:
- Canadian statistics suggest up to 40% of pregnancies are unplanned.
- Major birth defects of the baby’s brain or spine occur very early in pregnancy (3-4 weeks after conception), before most women know they are pregnant.
Low-carbohydrate diets may increase the risk of NTDs. Researchers studied over 11,000 women from 1998 to 2011 to assess the association between carbohydrate intake and NTDs. They found that women with restricted carbohydrate intake were 30% more likely to have an infant with anencephaly or spina bifida (both of these are classified as NTDs).
Those who restricted their consumption of carbohydrates, which includes whole grain wheat and refined wheat products, had folic acid levels that were less than half of those who did not restrict their diets. In the US, which has a similar folic acid fortification program as Canada, research from the CDC found that NTDs have been successfully prevented in those who might otherwise have been affected if cereal grains were not fortified.
Limiting grains can have an unintended impact on calcium and iron in kids
For children, the enrichment of refined grains (including wheat) contributes to adequate intakes of fibre, thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, niacin, and zinc. Children and adolescents with limited grain foods in their diet (less than or equal to 1 serving of grains/day) had significantly lower intakes of several nutrients including dietary fibre, folate, magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, thiamin, niacin and riboflavin.
While grain foods are a key source of calories in the Canadian diet, grain-based foods are also important sources for dietary fibre, folate, iron, niacin and thiamin. Grain foods, on average, contribute 25.9% of daily calories, 45% of folate, 42% of thiamine, 41% of iron, 35% of dietary fibre, and 25% of niacin to the total daily intake of Canadian children and adolescents.
Avoidance of grains in adults
Similarly in adults, there is the potential for inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals in those who limit consumption of grains, including whole grain wheat and refined wheat.
Avoiding grain foods was linked to lower intake of several key nutrients, many of which have been identified as shortfall nutrients by the Institute of Medicine – this includes folate, dietary fibre, calcium, and magnesium.
Grain foods provide nutrient density to the diet of Canadian adults. While they are the main source of energy intake in Canada, they are also the primary source of dietary fibre, folate, iron, thiamine, and niacin. Adults consuming a mixed grain dietary pattern, including breads and cereals, had greater daily intakes of calcium, potassium, magnesium, riboflavin, and vitamin B6, versus adults avoiding grains in their diet.