Defra reviews compulsory flour fortification - the right to choose what goes in our bread?

21 June 2012 - 1:56pm -- Gerry Danby
Two Magpies Bakery

What we eat should surely be a matter of choice? Not in the UK since the 1950s so far as bread is concerned, but change may be afoot. Whilst we defend the right to raw drinking milk, we need now to put the case for real bread.

The Government’s Red Tape Challenge led the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to review the need for the Bread and Flour Regulations 1998 under which the addition of certain nutrients (iron, calcium carbonate (chalk), thiamin (vitamin B1) and niacin) to all wheat flour (except wholemeal flour) is required at the milling stage of processing flour. The addition of calcium carbonate became mandatory in 1943 to increase calcium levels in the diet and throughout the 1940s to the end of food rationing in 1954 the milling of flour up to 80% extraction or higher was required by law in order to make full use of the nutritional value of the wheat grain.

In 1953 the milling requirement was removed, bread could again be made from flour of 70-72% extraction but it contained much lower levels of nutrient found in the germ and outer layers of the grain present in flour of 80% extraction. Regulations were introduced to restore the iron, thiamin and niacin lost in the milling process and continue the addition of calcium.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) was asked to look at the impact of repealing the 1998 Regulations and has recently produced its report: Nutritional Implications of Repealing the UK Bread and Flour Regulations. SACN undertook a modelling exercise using the latest data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey to estimate the impact of nutrient removal from flour on nutrient intakes in all age groups.

SACN conclude that the impact of removing added thiamine and niacin would be small, these nutrients are widespread in the diet and clinical deficiency is rare. The impact of removing added calcium and iron would be greater, particularly for calcium, and it would have a greater impact on those whose intakes of calcium and iron are already low and a concern, namely older children and young adults, particularly women. SACN go on to state, however, that the evidence suggests that “iron in the form added to wheat flour (and in iron fortified foods) is poorly absorbed and may be of little practical use in improving iron status even in individuals with increased systemic iron needs, possibly due to low solubility and intestinal uptake.”

On the way to reaching these conclusions, SACN highlighted a number of interesting points:

  • Total bread consumption shows a long-term decline in all age groups.
  • There is some evidence of a switch from white to brown, granary and wheatgerm breads, although the majority remains white.
  • The proportion of bread and flour products imported into the UK is minimal.
  • Only about 1% of domestic flour is imported.

It looks as though the debate will focus on the need for added calcium and whether this should be a voluntary or mandatory fortification. When first introduced in the 1940s the scarcity of dairy products was a part of the justification for the mandatory addition of calcium. This no longer holds true today and the needs of older children and young adults are better and more effectively addressed through healthy lifestyle education. More important, and troubling, is that SACN appear concerned that repeal of the 1998 Regulations and reliance on voluntary arrangements would make it difficult to extend fortification into other areas where it considers it may be more justified, for example, folic acid to reduce the incidence of neural tube defects in pregnant women. This should be discounted as having nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of adding the nutrients under consideration.

Defra will be going out to public consultation on the repeal of the 1998 Regulations later this year. The last review was undertaken in 1981 when the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) recommended that the addition of iron, calcium carbonate, thiamin and niacin should no longer be required on the basis that dietary survey evidence indicated that intakes of these nutrients were adequate. The Government of the day ignored the advice.

Advocates of real bread and supporters of the Real Bread Campaign may well conclude repeal of the 1998 Regulations is the way forward. The best way then to ensure your loaf is the most nutritionally sound would be to support your local real bread bakery. Repeal of the 1998 Regulations and public education could together be a driving force to help bring real bread bakeries back to local high streets. More fundamentally, we should simply have the right to determine what we choose to put inside ourselves.

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