Enriching our health
Greenhouse gas emissions are not only impacting global food security but also the nutritional value of our food. The evidence is already out there on how human contribution to climate change (altering temperatures and rainfall patterns) affects the growing season and reduces yields of many important staple grains, like wheat. And fewer crops mean higher rates of undernourishment (child stunting and wasting) in poorer countries where calorie consumption is reduced.
At the same time, elevated CO2 levels increase photosynthesis, raising crop yields, soluble sugars and antioxidants in the plant, but diluting its nutrients. A review published on The Lancet Planetary Health website summarises the findings of three studies proving just that: higher levels of CO2 mean lower protein and mineral concentrations (e.g. iron and zinc) by 5–15%, and lower B vitamins by up to 30% in wheat, rice, potatoes and barley. We end up compensating for these deficits by fortifying our foods.
History of flour fortification
Since the Second World War, flour has been fortified in the UK. This was originally done as a way to improve the nation’s health during the war. Under rules laid out in the Bread and Flour Regulations 1998, all wheat flour (except wholemeal) is required to have added calcium, iron, thiamine and niacin. These have little effect on taste and cooking properties and help address malnutrition and prevent nutritional deficiencies. Folic acid must also now be included in non-wholemeal flours across the UK and in more than 80 other countries in order to reduce life-threatening spinal conditions in babies.
Although fortification of food in the US dates back to the 1920s and 1930s (with the iodisation of salt to help with goitre and vitamin D in milk to eradicate rickets), the FDA ruled in the 1940s that it would encourage rather than mandate fortification practices. Widespread participation has been achieved through market demand.
The global scale of industrial fortification
Ninety countries around the world supplement their wheat flour with one or more vitamins or minerals after considering the research and contribution to our health. See this interactive map of the countries and mandates. The Global Fortification Data Exchange claims that 90% of wheat flour in the UK is fortified, 92% in the US, 95% in Canada, 80% in Australia and only 1% in China. According to 2010 data from McCance and Widdowson, wheat flour accounts for 35% of the UK’s calcium intake, 31% of its iron intake and 31% of its thiamine intake.
The Food Fortification Initiative’s (FFI) 2021 Annual Report claims that, through their efforts in providing technical assistance for grain fortification, significant progress has been made in Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe and India to remedy micronutrient deficiencies (which can cause disorders like anaemia and spina bifida). One such programme, Smarter Futures (a partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands), has, the FFI says, led to the rise of mandatory fortification from seven countries in Africa to twenty-nine countries since the programme began fifteen years ago.
When implemented at a national level, fortification benefits everyone by providing essential nutrients. However, less than half of large-scale manufacturers are consistently fortifying their products according to national standards. This is due to a lack of food-control capacity and incentive structures for the industry. Consumers are most affected, as so-called fortified products can often lack the micronutrients they claim to contain.
How does this affect flour millers?
At the mill, the fortification process is relatively inexpensive, as it only requires the addition of a nutrient premix to the flour once milled. There’s also little noticeable impact on the price of the flour to the consumer. There are the initial costs of buying the feeders, plus the ongoing costs of premix (in their FAQs, the FFI provides a range of $0.85–$10 per metric ton of flour) and costs for quality control supplies and testing, but the WHO states that fortification costs only $0.05 to $0.25 per person per year (depending on the food and nutrient added).
The benefits of flour fortification offset any associated costs, especially when you look at it as a preventive healthcare intervention and consider the economic impacts (lost work productivity due to nutritional deficiencies). The FFI points to a few studies on its site showing folic acid intervention in the US from fortification practices could mean an annual net savings (from lifetime costs to care for people with spina bifida) of $603 million.
The environmental impact of commercial food fortification isn’t huge, as it uses existing food processing and delivery systems. In a study funded by GAIN, Quantis (an environmental sustainability consultancy) calculated the carbon footprint of fortified foods in kilograms of CO2-equivalents and found that due to the relatively small amount of nutrients added to food, the carbon footprint of the fortification process is generally not more than 100 or 1,000 times less impacting than the food itself. If 40% of the pregnant women in Indonesia received 200 mg/day of iron sulphate through fortification and supplementation to combat anaemia, this would equal only thirty tonnes of CO2-equivalent — equal to fifteen transatlantic flights.
So what’s this got to do with BALM?
BALM reframes the way we consider our ingredient, flour, in light of the need to reduce our carbon footprint. When the flour fortification system was put in, the global societal demands were quite different. The framework of the BALM protocol brings bakers up-to-date with the current needs of society. The reason that we teach about this is that our current academic understanding of bread, its impact on the environment, and our physical and mental health, is not reflected in our production systems – and we need to move on this fast.
Because we are ruining our planet and our health. BALM is the application of the most up-to-date research and understanding. That is why we have to reconsider and understand things such as this flour fortification because, with this understanding and knowledge, we can see clearly and make adjustments to improve the system and actually create bread that is nourishing. It has never been more important to apply this knowledge than within the industrial bread system. BALM facilitates activism that goes beyond the artisan breadmakers with the intention of impacting greater industrial change.
Although initially it may look contentious and may sound to some very radical or disruptive, BALM is needed to help change our approach to bread to nourish and to be a sustainable approach to our basic food.
Here you can watch a video of Vanessa discussing Karen’s first-hand experience of anaemia and how the nutritional qualities of fermented wholegrain in sourdough benefited her health.