In 1996 the FDA mandated that all flour and uncooked cereal-grain products in the U.S. be fortified with folic acid, the synthetic form of the water-soluble B complex vitamin, by January of 1998. The policy was put in place after researchers found how important folic acid was in the development of red blood cells, DNA synthesis, cardiovascular health, and for preventing neural tube defects during fetal development. Unfortunately, B complex vitamins have varying absorption rates, especially as the bioavailability of the vitamin varies from about 50% from diet, to about 100% absorption from supplementation. The FDA determined that preventing the micronutrient deficiency was a benefit that outweighed any risk of toxicity, especially with a water-soluble vitamin. 15 years after this law was passed, it is rare to see the problems associated with folate deficiencies, as most commercial products have folic acid added to them.
Gluten-free flours, however, are not subjected to the same laws. As such, many manufacturers do not add B complex vitamins to their gluten-free flours, and therefore many processed gluten-free foods remain unfortified.
Though some feel incredulous about the lack of fortification, many advocate for the end of adding nutrients to food. The controversy lies in the manipulation of food. While it is beneficial for food to be fortified with important vitamins and minerals that our diet may otherwise be deficient in, the isolated nutrients are not always processed biochemically in our bodies as they would be in the original, whole food form. In many cases, the fortified foods have synthetic micronutrients (as opposed to naturally occurring), or vitamins that are typically best absorbed in fat (vitamins A, D, E, & K) are provided in the absence of fat (such as vitamin A and D fortification of skim milk), making it harder for our bodies to absorb.
As I’ve stated before, I am a huge advocate of whole, naturally occurring foods for a gluten-free diet. I am suspicious that my own dietary issues stem from eating processed foods, over simply cutting out gluten. Therefore, I believe my gluten-free issues could be due to any effect of processing food, not just the fact it contains gluten.
If you feel concerned about your own diet and want to find some naturally occuring gluten-free ways to get in your folate, try incorporating more beans (such as garbanzo, black, or kidney), leafy green vegetables, asparagus, and lentils into your diet. Also, remember that synthetic supplementation of vitamin B12 is actually easier for your body to absorb (one of the only vitamins that is easier to absorb in its synthetic form than natural form), and you can take a small pill under your tongue to get sufficient amounts everyday.
What do you think about fortification? Is it something the gluten-free community should demand in our flours, or does over-processing foods contribute to adverse reactions among celiacs?