Tackling iron deficiency through flour fortification

By Nicola Cottam

- Last updated on GMT

There are huge discrepencies in iron fortification levels of flour around the world, says the Flour Fortification Initiative's senior nutrition specialist
There are huge discrepencies in iron fortification levels of flour around the world, says the Flour Fortification Initiative's senior nutrition specialist

Related tags: Quality control, Wheat, Iron

Wheat flour is the perfect vehicle for iron fortification, but progress remains slow, says a specialist.

Iron fortification in wheat flour is a cost-effective means of increasing a population’s nutrient intake but despite significant advances in both application and quality control, there are huge discrepancies in fortification levels around the world, according to Helena Pachon, senior nutrition specialist for the Flour Fortification Initiative (FFI).

She told Milling & Grains that by increasing fortification with the latest sodium iron EDTA (NaFeEDTA), combined with the new ‘modified spot test’ to assess process control, iron deficiency could be tackled more effectively and on a much wider scale.

According to the FFI, there are currently 78 countries with legislation stipulating fortification of at least iron or folic acid to wheat flour - in North, Central and South America and some parts of Africa. The UK is the only country in the EU that has mandatory flour fortification.

“Throughout western and eastern Europe and northern Africa, wheat is the most commonly consumed cereal grain, yet wheat flour is rarely fortified in these regions. Some might argue that people in these regions are already healthy. That is not always the case as people may not be eating nutrient-rich foods due to personal beliefs or economic situations,” ​Pachon said.

Testing for iron

Wheat flour is generally fortified with either NaFeEDTA, ferrous sulphate, ferrous fumarate or electrolytic iron. Among these, NaFeEDTA is the most bioavailable (or easily absorbed) and is the only iron compound recommended for use with high extraction (whole wheat) flour. Yet, there are only four countries out of the 78 using NaFeEDTA. This is mainly because of its higher cost, but also due to the lack of an effective quality control test, Pachon explained.

Flour millers are duty bound to regularly monitor and assess quality control and it is critical to have a quick and easy test to monitor the process control, she said. The traditional iron spot test assesses the amount of added iron, including ferrous sulphate, ferrous fumarate and electrolytic iron for low extraction (refined) flour, and is routinely used at least once during every eight hour shift, in addition to the tests carried out by regulators. The only drawback is that it does not detect the presence of NaFeEDTA in either low or high extraction (whole wheat) flour.

Normally the use of process control (check weighing) and the simple iron spot test is sufficient to determine the correct addition of premix during the milling process,”​ said Pachon. “However the high bioavailability of NaFeEDTA counteracts the high phytate content in high extraction wheat which inhibits iron absorption. By removing one of the three reagents used in the standard qualitative spot test (hydrogen peroxide) the added iron can be detected.”

The resulting modified spot test, developed by the FFI and PCubed, has opened the floodgates to the much broader application of NaFeEDTA. 

“Think of all the technical advances that were made between 1995 and 2011. Yet we have barely made a difference in a health problem that affected 528 million women in 2011. The modified spot test will at least allow for the detection of NaFeEDTA and its further application in high extraction flours, as well as regular flours,” ​Pachon said.

Related topics: Milling & Grains

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