Flour and Wheat

The fortification of foods has been around for a long time. Simply put, it means that vitamins and minerals are added to prepared foods to boost their nutritional content. Consumers are familiar with the fortification of breakfast cereal and milk, but perhaps are not so familiar with fortification of flour or bread.

While eating a balanced diet is of course the best way to get all the nutrients you need, by adding certain nutrients to your food, for example energy and protein, you can make your meals extra nourishing. In fact, eating more fortified foods is recommended by The Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute (INDI) for people with poor appetites or who have suffered weight loss through illness. INDI also recommends eating sandwiches, fresh or toasted, made with wholemeal or white bread as they are nutritious and quick to make.

Fortified Flour

About 31% of the world’s industrially milled wheat flour is fortified, according to the Food Fortification Initiative. The nutrients most often included are iron, zinc and B vitamins including: folic acid, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6. These vitamins and minerals have been shown to support life-long health. Several prevent anaemia, and folic acid reduces the risk of birth defects of the brain and spine.

In the UK, the Bread and Flour Regulations (1998) specify that four vitamins and minerals must be added to all white and brown flour: calcium, iron, thiamine (Vitamin B1) and niacin (Vitamin B3). These requirements were introduced in the middle of the 20th century to ensure that these nutrients were being consumed in sufficient quantity. The position was reviewed by UK government advisory committees at the end of the 1990s, reaching the conclusion that this statutory addition of nutrients continued to play an important part in the overall diet.

Fortification of flour has a significant effect on nutrient intake in the UK: wheat flour (including the flour in bread and baked products) accounts for 35% of the nation's calcium intake, 31% of the iron intake and 31% of the thiamine intake. Recently the UK decided to introduce mandatory folic acid addition to flour. The details of this are under development. FSAI has alerted the Department of Health to this initiative, which, as the policy-making body has the authority to make the decisions on this issue.

Folic Acid fortification and Bread in Ireland

Mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid has been under consideration for many years. In 2005, the National Committee on Folic Acid Food Fortification was established by then Minister for Health and Children, Micheál Martin, T.D., with a remit to review evidence and to find the best solution to reduce the prevalence of neural tube defects (NTDs) in the national population. Ireland has one of the highest rates of NTDs in Europe. It is known that up to 70% of NTDs can be prevented by the consumption of folic acid.

A scientific report published in 2016 by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) again highlights the need for women of childbearing age to have higher intakes of folic acid, in order to reduce the incidence of severe birth defects in Ireland. Voluntary fortification of food with folic acid by manufacturers, which was introduced in the early 1980s, has made a significant contribution to reducing the risk of NTD-affected pregnancies in Ireland, according to the report. However, this approach has been shown to be less effective than mandatory fortification schemes in countries such as the US, where rates of NTDs are significantly lower than in Ireland.

As an outcome of their work, the Committee recommended the mandatory fortification of all bread on sale in Ireland. However, mandatory fortification of flour or bread with folic acid would require legislation. An implementation programme would be needed to address legislation, consumer acceptability and consumer choice, technical issues, cost, and trade implications. To date, the recommendation has not been implemented by the Irish Government.

Since the UK has announced plans to introduce mandatory folic acid addition to flour, there is no plan yet to request additional scientific advice from the FSAI, and the FSAI’s Scientific Committee opinion remains the current scientific recommendation to Government (link).

Food Businesses cannot place fortified flour on the Irish market (import or manufacture) unless it is compliant with EU rules on fortification of foods. Exemptions to these rules previously in place for UK no longer apply since Brexit.

The issue of using fortified ingredients in a final food that is not itself fortified to the ‘significant amount’ was discussed at a recent Standing Committee Meeting. FSAI had again raised the matter with the Commission at the end of September. FSAI are still awaiting written confirmation from the Commission, and this will be shared with the industry once received.

Two final points to note (1) the food label must clearly show that additional nutrients have been added (ingredients list), and (2) Unfortified flour can of course continue to be sold in Europe.

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