Gluten-Free Grain Foods and the Lack of B-Vitamin Enrichment

Gluten-Free Grain Foods and the Lack of B-Vitamin Enrichment

In Honor of Celiac Disease Awareness Month, Gluten Free Watchdog is writing a series of articles (the goal is one per day during the month of May) related to the gluten-free diet–currently the ONLY treatment for celiac disease.

Post (#26)…

A bit of background…

My second published article in the scientific literature way back in 1999 was entitled, Thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin contents of the gluten-free diet: is there cause for concern? This article assesses the enrichment status of gluten-free breads, pastas, breakfast cereals, mixes, and rice flours and compares the thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin contents of these products to the vitamin contents of their wheat-containing counterparts. I had observed via my own reading of ingredients lists that many (most) of the gluten-free grain foods were based on refined flours and starches and they were not enriched.

What is enrichment?

Enrichment when used on a food label generally means that vitamins and minerals originally present in food but lost during processing were added back. For example, when a whole grain such as brown rice is milled to make white rice or white rice flour, the outer bran and germ are removed, leaving the starchy endosperm. Stripping grains of bran and germ also strips them of many nutrients.

History of enrichment in the US (from the Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide by Tricia Thompson, McGraw-Hill, 2008)

“Government recommendations to enrich flour and bread products with the B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin (as well as iron) were first made in the early 1940s. These recommendations came about because of the poor nutritional status of enlisted men during World War II, as well as the identification of specific vitamin deficiency diseases related to poor dietary intake of B vitamins. Deficiency disease such as pellagra (due to poor niacin intake) and beriberi (due to poor thiamin intake) are rarely seen in the United States today, largely eliminated by enrichment of cereal grains.”

Note: Keep in mind that gluten-free cereal grain foods (e.g., breads, pastas, flours) typically are NOT enriched.

FDA

The FDA regulates the term “enriched” when used on a food label to describe a standardized food, such as “enriched bread.” Products including enriched bread, enriched flour, enriched macaroni products have standards of identity. Only certain nutrients are allowed to be added to these products and then only in specific defined amounts. Vitamins and minerals that must be included are thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, and iron.

Many of the refined wheat-based products available in the grocery store are enriched with B-vitamins and iron. These products provide a large percentage of American intakes of these nutrients. But again, keep in mind that gluten-free refined cereal grain foods (e.g., breads, pastas, flours) typically are NOT enriched.

Which brings us to the interesting (and confusing) part of the story…

In 1999 I contacted the FDA about gluten-free cereal foods and enrichment. The FDA stated in their response (see photos–clicking on them will allow you to read the entire letter) that manufacturers “may provide additional nutrients in gluten-free food products consistent with FDA regulations and policies for food fortification.” They go on to state, “a product claiming to substitute for an enriched food should be nutritionally equivalent to that food.”

However, in a more recent conversation with the FDA, a dietitian colleague and I were advised that the term “enriched” cannot be declared on the label of a gluten-free food that has an “equivalent” wheat-based product with a standard of identity. In other words, a gluten-free bread, roll, or bun can not be labeled “enriched bread” because the gluten-free bread does not meet the FDA’s standard of identity for enriched bread. It also remains somewhat murky as to whether (and when) nutrients may be added to gluten-free breads, pastas, etc.

From my standpoint however, the written word beats the spoken word. So for the time being, I will continue encouraging manufacturers of refined gluten-free grain foods to enrich their products.

Tomorrow’s Post: What the Gluten Free Watchdog Eats

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Comments (2)

  • Terry Lefler
    Reply

    Hi Tricia – am glad to find some information but I have a question. I have been determined, through blood work, that I have the MTHFR gene mutation. One of the pitfalls of this is that I am supposed to avoid folic acid. Not folate, but the synthetic one:folic acid. My body may not at all be able to convert folic acid to the usable form: folate. Are you familiar with this? I’m trying to learn if the brown rice flour in the USA is typically enriched with folic acid. I am battling to recover from a B12 deficiency and folate plays a huge role in this.

    Thank you,
    Terry L

    February 6, 2019 at 7:55 pm
    • Tricia Thompson Reply

      Hi Terry, Rice flour in general is not typically enriched with folic acid. If it is, then folic acid must be declared in the ingredients list (or in a separate vitamin and mineral listing).

      February 7, 2019 at 2:35 pm

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