Did Food Enrichment Cause The Obesity Epidemic?
In recent years, it’s become fashionable for Americans to avoid bread, wheat and gluten in order to lose weight and improve their health. It’s easy to find gluten-free options in most American restaurants. However, the very idea that wheat promotes obesity is easily debunked by looking at the populations that consume more wheat than Americans do.
For instance, France has one of the lowest obesity rates of any nation in the developed world. Yet, they eat 40% more wheat than Americans do — much of it refined — and they have 1/3 the obesity level. They eat the same modern semi-dwarf wheat that we do but somehow avoid the health problems that many attribute to wheat and carbohydrates. Gluten-free diets are not popular in France and it can be difficult to find gluten-free options in French restaurants.
The number of French who are considered “overweight” has very recently skyrocketed since smoking plummeted in France. Hunger and caloric intake is a side-effect of smoking cessation. Despite this very recent development, the French remain one of the thinnest populations.
From the dawn of civilization, right up until the Industrial Revolution, whole grain bread was considered to be the most nourishing article of food, and gluten was thought to be the most nourishing ingredient. Some early Asian cultures even added wheat gluten to their food to promote health.
Furthermore, there is debate as to whether Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) is even a real disease — there is no blood test or biomarker that can diagnose it. In the US, gluten sensitivity was extremely rare before 1950. NCGS is usually cured by wheat avoidance or by eating bread baked in France. All of this implies that something else is making Americans intolerant to wheat.
The latest anti-obesity fad in America is CrossFit™ — bodybuilding gyms promoting intense military-style workout regimens coupled with an extreme Paleo™ diet. Meanwhile, exercise and gyms are not popular in France and the French burn their calories through the occasional football game and active social activities. This raises the question….
How is this dichotomy possible?
France does not fortify its flour, while the US significantly increased fortification of iron, an oxidant, to all refined carbohydrates after WWII.
In short, we eat bread and pasta with high levels of iron fortifications that “rust” in the body, while the French eat unadulterated wheat. Populations with high iron intakes are more likely to be obese.
Sure enough, there is a treasure trove of research linking excess dietary iron and disruptions of iron homeostasis to a wide range of chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and neurological disorders. Obesity is now seen as a disruption of iron homeostasis that often presents with anemic serum levels, and iron deposits in the brain and adipose tissue.
There is also evidence that iron enrichment disrupts the gut flora, potentially making it difficult for Americans to digest wheat. This may explain why gluten avoidance is popular in fortified countries.
Fortification was instituted in the US during WWII, to remedy deficiencies after The Great Depression. In 1983, the FDA increased fortification levels by 40%, at a time when people were already eating more meat, resulting in one of the highest iron intakes of any nation.
Despite unprecedented levels of iron intakes, fortification has been ineffective at preventing anemia in the US. Meanwhile, abolishment of iron fortification in Europe has not resulted in increased anemia.
Only three developed nations enrich flour, pasta, grits or rice with iron: the USA, Canada and Britain. Fortification is done almost exclusively by developing and third-world countries. Some European countries, like Denmark and Sweden, have even banned fortification.
A 2014 study also confirms the trend across developed countries — correlating the timing of obesity epidemics to government-mandated increases in fortification. The trend can even be found in states that adopted mandatory fortification laws during the 1950s.
Industrial countries may be particularly vulnerable as HFCS and refined oils significantly increase iron absorption. And, a new study shows that high levels of iron in the body significantly increases appetite.
Mineral Balance and Gut Flora
The main problem with food enrichment is that if one absorbs fortified iron, it promotes an imbalance of micronutrients — the body obtains iron but no other opposing or synergistic minerals. And if one doesn’t absorb that iron, as much of it is poorly absorbed, it may promote pathogenic gut flora in the colon, which is also linked to disease.
In whole foods, such as whole-grain wheat, iron is always balanced with high levels of manganese, copper, and antioxidants because the plants require these micronutrients and phytonutrients to manage the oxidative stress from iron and sugars. We do too. Manganese and copper are required for the creation of crucial enzymes that are responsible for our most powerful endogenous antioxidants, SOD and MnSOD.
Copper is also required for getting iron in and out of cells properly. It’s been known since at least the 1930s that copper can help cure iron deficiency anemia. High iron consumption increases one’s copper requirement. Sadly, most Americans have low copper intakes.
Since metabolisms are strikingly similar across all species, whole plants and animals require this same balance of micronutrients. Carnivores obtain this balance from eating whole carcasses — muscle meat is high in iron, intestines are rich in manganese, and organs are rich in copper. A diet very high in muscle meat is linked to diabetes, which is linked to excess iron.
Like muscle meat, fortified foods have lots of iron, but very little manganese or copper to counterbalance iron. So fortified foods exacerbate a micronutrient imbalance that promotes oxidative stress — excess iron stores can oxidize and cause free-radical damage in tissues and organs. Some researchers have even said that most free radical injury is iron related.
Known mineral interactions can be seen in the following graphic.
Fortifying foods with only one mineral, such as iron, promotes a mineral imbalance. Unfortunately, iron happens to be one of the most reactive metals and is prone to oxidation. It rusts.
When you eat real whole foods, you don’t need to worry about that chart. The seeds, whole plant, or whole carcass you are swallowing had to figure it out in order to thrive and exist in the first place. It’s only when you refine foods, preferentially select parts of foods, or fortify foods that you promote an imbalance. The French or Japanese, who consume white flour or white rice, often consume other foods (cacao, seaweed, hemp, etc.) to make up for the loss of micronutrients in refined foods.
The Enrichment-Free Diet
What do all successful diets have in common? They all avoid fortified foods. Gluten-free flours, and real whole grains like brown rice and spelt aren’t fortified. However, it can be difficult to avoid fortified foods when eating out. While the French consume pastries with low levels of obesity, it’s nearly impossible to find wheat products that aren’t fortified in English-speaking nations.
The easiest way to emulate all successful diets is to simply avoid eating fortified foods and favor whole foods. Demand organic flours and whole grain flours, which are not fortified in the US.
In Britain, where fortification is added to all white flour, including organic flour, the Real Bread Campaign has questioned the necessity of flour fortification. Spreading the word to local bakers and chefs that enriched flours are not real foods is a step in the right direction.
Organic produce is popular, but few ever pay attention to the adulterations in their flour. Pizzerias use organic toppings but rarely take the steps to use organic and unfortified flour. Even Whole Foods™ doesn’t pay attention to flour — their aisles and bakeries are mainly filled with enriched products.
A large body of scientific evidence shows excess iron contributes to metabolic issues. Let’s follow Europe’s lead and end mass food fortification.
Iron The Most Toxic Metal, by Jym Moon, PhD