This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) bread and flour enrichment programs in the United States. Inaugurated at a 1941 National Nutrition Conference for Defense in Washington, D.C., the enrichment of grain foods has been influential in improving the lives of millions of Americans.
Prior to 1941, diseases related to malnutrition were rampant throughout the country. Pellagra, a condition associated with chronic deficiency of the B vitamin niacin, was among the Top 10 leading causes of death for people in Southern states throughout the late 1920s. Other common conditions related to malnutrition included iron-deficiency anemia and beriberi, the disease resulting from deficiency of the B vitamin thiamin.
In response to the extensive presence of deficiency-related diseases, in 1938, the American Medical Association, Chicago, issued a statement declaring support for the fortification of staple foods such as flours. Bakers throughout the country voluntarily began enriching bread with high-vitamin yeast and adding synthetic vitamins once the technology was available. But it wasn’t until 1941 that federal definitions were developed, standardizing the nutrient content of enriched and un-enriched flours.
To this day, the FDA sets the standards for enriched grains by defining the levels of nutrients needed for grain products to be considered enriched; nutrients that must meet these standards include the B vitamins thiamin, niacin and riboflavin as well as iron and folic acid. Of these, folic acid is the most recent addition to the list of nutrients found in enriched grains, including white bread, bagels, pasta, tortillas and white rice. This fortification began in 1998 to increase folic acid intake in women of child-bearing age because of folic acid’s key role in the prevention of some birth defects (for more on this, check out The Nutritional Corner column in the January 2011 issue).
As a member of the grains industry, I couldn’t be more proud of all the good things that have come from the enrichment of grain foods. More than 150,000 lives have been spared and deficiency diseases such as pellagra and beriberi have been eradicated. And in the years since 1998, there have been 26% fewer cases of neural tube defects. That reduction translates to more than 15,000 cases of anencephaly and spina bifida prevented, for which we have the folic acid fortification of enriched grains to thank.
In light of the 70th anniversary of enriching grains, I commend the milling and baking industry for their important contribution to the health of Americans. Grain foods remain a delicious, affordable and healthy staple in our population’s diets, and we at the Grain Foods Foundation, Ridgway, Colo., are committed to keeping it that way in all the years to come.